Tag Archives: framing

Framing Is Greater Than Fishing

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
hove
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:

cat EVIDENCE

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.

Be a better communicator

How well we communicate determines success or failure in every aspect of life. The ability to effectively get a message across is learned, even if the person learning is unaware of that learning. We are not born as linguistic beings, but acquire that ability after birth, during early childhood. We hone that ability subconsciously as we engage in our social interactions, our inner dialogue typically running ahead of our overt patter by about a mile. Every now and then the message that the message is important gets out. Lately that has been in the form of memish** aphorisms, like “don’t repeat the falsehood” or “stop using their talking points” or “get a better frame!”

These bits of advice often do more damage then good. They are potentially sharp knives, or meaty mallets, or highly useful duct tape, in the tool kit of novices, but just as likely to cut or pound a finger or gum something up as to help. These bits of advice are like the tricks surgeons used to close off a bleeder or work around a key nerve without harming it. They are nice to know if you are a trained surgeon, but really not that useful if you are not. They serve mainly to make people think they are suddenly good communicators.

My advice is to either let other people do it, or to ramp it up. By ramp it up I mean don’t attend one seminar on how to communicate, but ten. Not three or four, but ten. Don’t read the first four paragraphs of a commentary on communication in The Atlantic, but read five books. Not one or two books, but five books. Or seven,even.

You need to do enough study of the matter to go through the phase when you realize you know way less than you thought.

Pursuant to this effort, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not new, but they are current. Newness is not the key to success. One of the best references in how we communicate with words is well over 2,000 years old.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath*. Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.

How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump by Joe Romm*. How To Go Viral And Reach Millions is the first book to reveal all the latest secrets for consistently generating viral online content—words, images, or videos that are seen and shared by hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of people, something Romm and his colleagues in three different organizations achieve routinely.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff.* Ten years after writing the definitive, international bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.

Called the “father of framing” by The New York Times, Lakoff explains how framing is about ideas?ideas that come before policy, ideas that make sense of facts, ideas that are proactive not reactive, positive not negative, ideas that need to be communicated out loud every day in public.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! picks up where the original book left off?delving deeper into how framing works, how framing has evolved in the past decade, how to speak to people who harbor elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews, how to counter propaganda and slogans, and more.

In this updated and expanded edition, Lakoff, urges progressives to go beyond the typical laundry list of facts, policies, and programs and present a clear moral vision to the country?one that is traditionally American and can become a guidepost for developing compassionate, effective policy that upholds citizens’ well-being and freedom. (NB: “All New” here does not mean all new now. It was all new a few years ago.)


** Pronoiunced “meem-ish” not “mem ish”.

Satan playing air guitar on his pitchfork in your local public school?

What about a picture of Charles Darwin burning in hell to teach kids about flames?

I don’t think so. Although I personally am not like some of my fellow secularists in reacting viscerally to any and all stylistic or symbolic references to Judeo-Christian religious themes, I am aware that there are recognizable religious visual or literary elements which, if used as part of a teaching tool, can be easily construed as promotion of a religion. “Promotion” is not standing on a soap box preaching, or telling students that a particular religion is bad while another is good, or giving extra credit points for prayer. Well, it is that. But promotion is also something as simple as a person in authority casually wearing a religious symbol or having such a symbol on a desk or wall in a classroom, or making references to a particular religious metaphor while teaching. These casual representations and references are relatively benign among adults, or in college, or probably even in senior high school, but in grade school they are regarded as promotion and public school teachers must not engage in this behavior.

Which brings us to the Science Marketing’s Boner of the Year award. Which, tongue in cheek, I just made up to draw attention to an interesting development.

You are familiar with Marketing for Scientists, the blog and the effort, as well as Marc Kuchner, science marketing guru. Marc’s thing is that marketing is important because without it you mostly get ignored. He’s right, of course, and I generally support and appreciate his efforts. You’ll remember the discussion a while back of Bill Nye‘s dressing down of creationism. Some people thought that Bill Nye being a meanie was a marketing disaster, and I disagreed. In retrospect, I’m sure I was right, because the controversy over Bill Nye pointing out that creationist parents are doing it wrong led to a widespread discussion of creationism in schools, and that discussion has to happen frequently. Also, Bill was right. Hard to go totally wrong if you’re right.

Marc just sent me a link to the latest post on Marketing for Scientists, which is “The Top Six Science Marketing Hits of 2012.” Number 5 is The Flame Challenge, of which Marc says:

This contest, held by the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University with help from actor Alan Alda, dared scientists and educators to submit videos explaining what a flame is—a subtle concept. What set this contest apart from other science communication contests is that the judges were 11-year old students: some 6000 of them at 130 elementary schools. The results taught us something deep, I think, about how children view scientists.

Here is the video, which is discussed here:

(If you can’t see that for some reason, go to the link.)

I happen to think this video does a great job of explaining the science of the flame. The visuals and the dialog bring the viewer to a question, then address the question in a way that explains it but raises another question, which is then addressed, until the whole thing is explained at a fairly high level. That is a very good technique. The voice over, visuals, music, and overall production are high-value, attractive, attention grabbing, well timed, and all that. In short it is a very nice piece of work.

Unfortunately, the video can’t be used in a public school classroom in the US because it promotes Abrahamic religious themes. Promotes as in uses which is really all you need. The video opens with a man who looks a LOT like Charles Darwin chained to a wall in hell, surrounded by flames. The narrator then goes on to explain to the possibly holocaust-victim evolutionary biologist all he might ever want to know about flames. Satan (or some other high ranking devil) makes an appearance a bit later. He is used in the story to demonstrate incandescence by heating up his pitchfork in the hell-fire. Later, during the wrap-up, Satan plays air guitar with the pitchfork, which is cute.

I know, a lot of people are going to say that I’m being ridiculous, that these themes are just part of culture, that they don’t mean anything, that kids are exposed to this sort of thing anyway, that the science teacher can use the video anyway and then have a lecture on the conflict of science and religion, etc. etc. etc. But all that is wrong, sorry. It is promoting a particular religion with state funds which is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, it is inappropriate and could probably get a teacher in trouble if the right people knew the teacher was showing it. Making a science video and not taking into account the fact that teachers who have not thought about what they are doing could get in trouble is not good marketing. Well, it isn’t bad marketing either, it simply isn’t about marketing. It is about end user safety. This is like making a child’s toy and it is a) very fun, b) very desirable, everybody wants one, c) very well marketed and d) hurts some of the kids. And, no, we casual denizens of the internet don’t get to write off the fact that the negative effects potentially caused by a certain choice could be mitigated against by having an additional set of lectures.

On top of all this, I know there are teachers out there who will see this video and think it a great idea to use in the classroom precisely because it has a Judeo-Christian religious theme, and some will even like it because it depicts Charles Darwin burning in hell. Indeed, this is a physical science video, and there are probably more physical science teachers who happen to be Christian Creationists than life science teachers who are creationists, and the latter number is known to be well above 25%. So, yeah, Ben Ames, the maker of this video, may have produced a product that supports a creationist agenda, in a small but not insignificant way, even though that was presumably not his intention.

There may be a flaw in the process that could easily be fixed. Ben Ames is a communications and journalism guy, not a middle school teacher, or even a middle school education expert (I think … subject to correction). This project in communicating science, which I’m sure is a good one, will continue. I recommend that language be placed in the guiding documents for the project reminding producers that iconography or reference, even seemingly benign, to religious themes would likely disqualify a work from actual use in actual schools and would be best avoided. Also, having a science education expert familiar with the grade level and the legal and socio-cultural aspects of “marketing” science in the mix somewhere would be good. The idea would be to not let developers get beyond concept stage with unusable elements in place, in order to avoid wasting effort. As I say, this little film on flame is outstanding and really does the trick. It is simply unusable in the classrooms for which it intended, and unfortunately, will be used to potentially negative effect, and, here and there, exploited in a negative way. (This whole discussion must be adjusted, of course, for cases outside the US, where the First amendment does not apply, but where there may be similar issues.)

In this case, describing what a flame is, Hell seems like an obvious theme because there would be a lot of flames there. In some future year, perhaps the project will focus on floods … what could go wrong then?

Critiquing the critique of the critique of the critique of the critique of Bill Nye's video

This is a response to Critiquing the “Critique” and the “Critique of the Critique” of Bill Nye’s Video at UrbanAstro.org. In that post, FURYGuitar addresses both Critiquing the Critique of Bill Nye’s Video by me and Bill Nye’s “Don’t Teach Creationism…” Video Dissected by Business Communication Expert in which scientist and marketing expert Marc Kuchner writes in a guest blog for Scientific American Blogs an interview with communication expert Patrick Donadio. Continue reading Critiquing the critique of the critique of the critique of the critique of Bill Nye's video

Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2

You can now read the Krause et al (2007) paper from Current Biology regarding the FOXP2 variant found in Neanderthals in an open-access on-line form at Current Biology Online. Here is the summary of the article:

Although many animals communicate vocally, no extant creature rivals modern humans in language ability. Therefore, knowing when and under what evolutionary pressures our capacity for language evolved is of great interest. Here, we find that our closest extinct relatives, the Neandertals, share with modern humans two evolutionary changes in FOXP2, a gene that has been implicated in the development of speech and language. We furthermore find that in Neandertals, these changes lie on the common modern human haplotype, which previously was shown to have been subject to a selective sweep. These results suggest that these genetic changes and the selective sweep predate the common ancestor (which existed about 300,000-400,000 years ago) of modern human and Neandertal populations. This is in contrast to more recent age estimates of the selective sweep based on extant human diversity data. Thus, these results illustrate the usefulness of retrieving direct genetic information from ancient remains for understanding recent human evolution.

The authors actually get more specific regarding the role of FOXP2 in language:

Although language and speech are clearly genetically complex phenomena, the only gene currently known that has a specific role in the development of language and speech is FOXP2. The inactivation of one FOXP2 copy leads primarily to deficits in orofacial movements and linguistic processing similar to those in individuals with adult-onset Broca’s aphasia

While the paper by Krause et al is an important contribution because it involves allele-level comparison of nucleic genetic material between hominid groups and across living and extinct forms, the role of FOXP2 and the characterization of the genetics of language may be misleading, if not simply very very wrong. Continue reading Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2