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Framing and the perception of scientific messages

In this article we will discuss the concept of framing and how it can be applied to science communication

What is framing in communication?

In science communication, emphasis or issue refers to the scheme in which the information is interpreted. Scientists studying this topic pointed out that adopting a frame is not avoidable, for two different reasons:

  • Scientist, especially when studying complex phenomena, must choose the aspects to analyze, and different sources can adopt different scientific approaches
  • As science is intrinsically a complex and non-linear process, science communicators must select the sources and information, and simplify them before trying to transmit their message to the public audience

Finding and adopting a frame is, therefore, a crucial aspect of science communication. The idea that framing the scientific message in different ways can help communicators resonate with different audiences was proposed, for instance, by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney in an article published in Science in 2007.
According to them, science communicators should adopt different lenses to communicate the same message to different audiences. For instance, mitigating climate change can be framed as a way of avoiding a catastrophe, or as a moral imperative.
The frame obviously depends on the speakers’ goals, but to be effective it must also consider the ideals and pre-existing opinions of the targeted audience.

However, there is an aspect to note: sometimes framing backfires.
This can happen because the speaker is perceived as untrustworthy and biased towards a goal which is not the same as the one of the audience.
This is particularly true when we discuss topics that are highly polarizing, such as GMOs or vaccines.

Framing does also have ethical aspects: should science communicators persuade the public and push them towards a certain stance, or rather encourage the public to reach its conclusions through a democratic debate? The first position was contested by Priest, Goodwin and Dahlstrom in their book published in 2018. They also point out other ethical challenges – for instance, when does framing become spinning or an exercise in PR?
So, it is important to think about this aspect both when creating your scientific message and when thinking of your role as a science communicator.

Framing, as a term, can also assume another meaning. It still refers to the way of presenting a message has on its perception, but focuses on the more specific sense of choosing between equivalent alternatives.

Equivalence framing and its effects in science communication

The phenomenon was firstly discussed in the early 80s by two behavioural economists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann.
They found that the preferred outcome of a situation involving uncertainty changed along with the way of presenting it. In particular, it was found that people prefer a guaranteed smaller gain (for instance, winning 10$), over a larger gain, if it is not certain (for instance, an even chance of winning 20$ or winning nothing).

This happens even when from a probabilistic point of view the two alternatives are equivalent. Interestingly, this effect reverses if we talk about losses instead of gains: people prefer the idea of losing 20$ with a probability of 50% than the idea of losing 10$ in all cases.
This phenomenon can have a significant impact when communicating uncertain events, and it actually accounted for the effects observed in a case of scientific miscommunication.

In October 1995, the UK Committee on Safety of Medicines issued a warning stating that third-generation contraceptive pills could double the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
The communication caused a sudden decrease in the users of the pill, with a consequent increase in unwanted pregnancies and abortions – about 13000.

What the communication did not say is that the increase was of one case every 7000 – the absolute number went from 1/7000 to 2/7000. Should the communication had been conducted in a more transparent way, using the absolute risks instead of the relative risks, the public scare would have probably been avoided.

Even if emphasis framing and equivalence framing refer to different concepts, both have an effect on the public reaction to science, and keeping them in mind will make you a better communicator, both by preventing misunderstandings and by reflecting on the ways in which your message will resonate with your audience.

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Science Communication and Public Engagement

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