Framing Is Greater Than Fishing

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Framing is a concept important in understanding how language works. It originated in anthropology, developed in sociology, re-employed in anthropology and linguistics, and is now a major part of communication science. It is the new thing. Framing is a verb that has come to mean correctly, or effectively, communicating a message in a way that is convincing. It isn’t, really. Framing is part of normal day to day linguistic communication, and I assure you, it is possible to “frame” something in an utterly disastrous way. So, “I did framing today” does not guarantee you did not screw up your message. “I was a good framer today” means you believe you didn’t screw it up, and maybe did a great job!

Here, I want to look at one example of communication to critique it from the perspective of framing, to give an idea of what framing is all about.

Have a look at this bumper sticker:

A bumper sticker from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Framing is always part of linguistic communication. Linguistic communication is a symbolic process, by which meaning is generated in a recipient, meaning that originated from another linguistic being, by reference to a commonly understood system of symbols and symbolic relationships. If I say the word “fish” you might think of some aquatic vertebrate animal easily available to your mind, maybe a trout. That is not because the word “fish” sounds, looks, or feels inherently fishish, but because we are communicating in a language in which “fish” is a shared symbol.

Which of the following words is not a word for “fish”?

se i?a
seekor ikan
eng Geess

You would not know that the first three mean “a fish” while the fourth one means “a goat” unless you also know Samoan, Indonesian, Shona, and Luxembourgian. The link between the thing and the word is arbitrary. That is what makes the word a symbol for a fish, instead of, say, an icon for a fish (which would look at least somewhat like a fish, and might be hard to say out loud using voice).

But what if I meant the verb “fish” instead of the noun? Go get a fishing pole, a worm, and the other gear, and try to catch a fish. You would probably know the difference between the noun and the verb because of other parts of the sentence. Like I might say, “Hey you, go fish” (verb) as opposed to “Hey you, look at that fish” (noun).

The difference here is typically thought of as grammatical. The actual symbol being used is not really “fish” but rather the collection of words arranged in such a way to be identified as a noun, or a verb, or some other thing. This can be less obvious in English which tends to disassociate the grammatical elements compared to some other languages. (This is probably a feature of both Romance and Germanic languages generally). Thinking of words as distinct sets of letters set off by surrounding white space is a hindrance for English speakers when it comes to understanding the symbolic nature of language.

But what about this difference: I say to you “go, fish!” as you stand on the dock next to a boat loaded up with angling gear. This might compel you to get in the boat and start hunting for fish. But if instead of standing on the dock, we are inside sitting around a table and we have a bunch of playing cards in play, and I say “go fish!” we are probably playing the card game by that name, and your next move is to look for a card in the deck.

The difference between being on the dock and looking in the deck is a matter of framing. The symbolic utterance is “go fish” but it has multiple possible meanings. But there is something else involved in this act of symbolizing, that allows you to be more likely to correctly interpret my words. In this case, it is the physical context (out by the lake vs inside at the table) and the presence of certain artifacts (the paraphernalia of angling vs a deck of cards). That additional information keys the frame to either being about an outdoor activity involving fish or an indoor activity involving a deck of cards.

In the symbolic structure represented in the NCSE bumper sticker, what is the meaning of the three elements “EVIDENCE”, “>”, and “Misinformation”?

I believe you are supposed to take the “>” as a greater than sign, so EVIDENCE is greater than Misinformation. The details of the typeface (bold vs. not bold) reinforces this. The additional symbol, the Darwin’s Phylogeny drawing in the earthy sphere tells us this bumper sticker is about science and evolution, and is anti-misinformation, but never mind that for now. Just given the two words and the greater-than sign tell us all we need to know.

Or does it? Stick with the assumption that the symbols are symbols, ie., arbitrary in meaning. If so, why is “>” greater than? If this bumper sticker is meant to convince mathematicians that evidence is greater than misinformation, then yes, that makes sense, the meaning is clear, but this is also a waste of good paper and glue, because mathematicians, or sciency people who have some affinity to math, already know that. But what if the person interpreting this symbolic entity happens to be primarily a computer expert who programs in the scripting language bash? That might sound like a small, obscure, group, but it is not. Raise your hand if you know enough bash to know what two words with a “>” between them means! In bash, greater than is symbolized by “-gt” and the “>” symbol means something totally different. Like this, for example:


means spew the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to what is called “standard output,” which means onto the screen, normally. However,

cat EVIDENCE>Misinformation

means redirect from standard output, and copy the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to the end of the file called “Misinformation” and if that file does not exist, create “Misinformation” and fill it with the contents of “EVIDENCE”.

From the bash point of view, evidence is the basis for misinformation. This bumper sticker is, maybe, saying that evidence is bullpucky, or creates bullpucky, or the basis for bullpucky. This would be an example of the framing stepping big time on the message.

Here, the framing is pre-done, or primed, in advance. A person who is likely to see a “>” as a mathematical symbol understands the bumper sticker as meant. A person who spends all day with bash scripts may well get the same meaning, but their brain may alternatively go right to “>” as the redirect symbol, and figure that evidence becomes misinformation, or that misinformation is made out of evidence. That would be a bumper sticker fail.

On top of this, consider that even though the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, icons also exist as part of our linguistic communication. So, that green thing that looks like an arrow might be showing us that EVIDENCE becomes, or goes to, Misinformation. That is still a matter of framing, but in this case, more the absence of a key to set the frame up properly. The recipient of the message is simply trying to interpret what starts out as nonsense (as do all symbols until our brains figure them out), by giving a meaning of implied directionality to the thing that looks like an arrow, and coming up with a reasonably comfortable interpretation of the message. Evidence leads to misinformation.

I love the NCSE. I’m a big supporter. They have helped me greatly in the past. This bumper sticker, though … might be lesser than other options.

*Framing was originally formulated in the work of Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, though not everyone acknowledges (or knows) that. This was picked up and greatly expanded by Erving Goffman, and his work was sufficiently significant to attribute the origin of framing to him, though he was building on Bateson. Framing then spread as an idea across anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy, and was noticed by linguist George Lakoff and evile Republican strategist Frank Luntz, and applied to communication strategy. Biographies of the framing concept will vary, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

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