We’ve been framed: on climate disruption, women’s rights, the economy, religion, party politics and damned near everything

Framed image of speech bubblesI just love serendipity.

Seemingly unrelated events: For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been wracking my brains over my next post on the subject of critical thinking. In email a while back, I had an exchange with someone over the importance of identifying the actual issues. Regarding recent posts at Scholars & Rogues, I’ve been on the brink of reply but left grasping at some inchoate…something. There was a word. Right there. At the tips of my tongue and fingers. And it was gone, along with the sense or structure of anything I might add. Then tonight it hit me. I searched. As luck would have it, this gold nugget from almost exactly five years ago popped up, only to reveal itself as perhaps the most generally relevant thing I’ve read in a fair while.

First Chapter: Framing the Debate by Jeffrey Feldman

New York Times, April 8, 2007
Excerpted from Framing the Debate by Jeffrey Feldman, 2007

From Lakoff’s perspective frames are defined as:

mental structures that shape the way we see the world … You can’t see or hear frames … When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain.

That, right there, was just what I had been looking for. I might even have seen my lost word elsewhere without actually seeing it, lost as it may have been in another frame. Here’s a perfect illustration of this concept from Sinfest by Tatsuya Ishida.

On the subject of critical thinking, a quote from the text I’m working through had me in knots. On the one hand, it felt like I had just another minor quibble with phrasing. On the other hand, it seemed like there was something far more significant to it:

[T]he path to reasonable conclusions begins with questions.
M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions, Ninth Edition. Pearson, 2010.

At bottom, I disagreed with the assertion at a gut level. Maybe I just would have been happier if they had phrased it, “sometimes the path to reasonable conclusions begins with questions,” but even then I might have balked. Something comes before the question, but what (he asks, as though proving their point)? The differences between Popper and Feyerabend on the origins of hypotheses came to mind (hazily, from my college days), but hypotheses, in turn, depend from observation. Which, in turn, is largely determined by framing. Feyerabend, by the way, would probably have been one of the few folks to be amused at my rejoinder to a very dear and incredibly rational and science-minded friend once upon a time when I called her (in kidding) a scientismist and a philosopholigist, what with her grad work in history and systems in philosophy of science.

On the subject of framing in news and journalism, the 1993 article How the Media Frames Political Issues by Scott London brings the point right back to observation, which in turn begs the question of one’s ability to recognize one’s own biases when assessing those presented in the context of frame:

To identify frames, the informational content of news reports is less important than the interpretive commentary that attends it. While this is true of journalism in general, it is especially evident in television news which is replete with metaphors, catchphrases, and other symbolic devices that provide a shorthand way of suggesting the underlying storyline. These devices provide the rhetorical bridge by which discrete bits of information are given a context and relationship to one another.

The frames for a given story are seldom conscientiously chosen but represent instead the effort of the journalist or sponsor to convey a story in a direct and meaningful way.

Ah, 1993. How times seem to have changed.

Cartoon by Mark Hurwitt

by Mark Hurwitt

In partisan politics, we find framing all over the spectrum, for example, a one-dimensional portrayal of a GOP contender for the 2012 nomination:

Enough said... All you need to know about Rick Santorum

My omission of a similar image representative (or not) of the left is, in itself, framing.

We encounter religious framing in America now as though it were a game show called, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? Is he a guns, God and country kind of Jesus as our modern day Leviticans (oops, framing) would have us believe? Or is he more the soft and squishy Jesus of Matthew 25:34-40 fame, the one that shows an almost perverse concern for the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the foreign, the ill, and the imprisoned?

In the economy, we see it whenever progressive taxation is called wealth redistribution, or conversely, whenever wealth redistribution is called progressive taxation. The price of gas at the pump is either a function of the free market, speculation, contango, corporate greed, Newt’s magic $2.50/gal. price policy, or President Obama’s secret gas price button (oops, more framing). The wealthy are either 1% greedy bastards or job creators. Mitt Romney is a real people person, provided corporations are people.

Women on birth control are either exhibiting their rights to make personal medical decisions in conjunction with their doctors, or they’re sluts. Medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound is either last minute conscience raising or state rape. On the one hand, I’d like to wait forever, but on the other, I “can’t wait” for a doctor performing such procedure under state laws to be tried on federal felony charges under the FBI’s recently revised definition of rape. “The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with state statute.” The courts should have a helluva time sorting out consent, duress, and state-mandated unnecessary medical rape against the backdrop of consent in accordance with state statute.

Last, but certainly not least, even (or especially) compared to the gravity of the above examples of framing, we come to recent developments at Scholars & Rogues as they relate to framing and “global warming,” “climate change,” “climate disruption,” “climate change deniers,” and “alarmists and skeptics“. Further, recent posts by Chris Mackowski and Otherwise, respectively, could, together, be construed as a dialogue about civility vs. outrage and passion in current American political speech and discourse. For the record, I ultimately come down on the side of Popper and falsifiability (Feyerabend did, after all, conclude before his death that much of his work was in error then didn’t live long enough to amend it, but damn it makes for fine reading). I side with the “scientismists” and “philosophologists” who are anything but, the men and women who eat, sleep, and live science and the philosophy thereof, the 97% of actual climate scientists (not the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers who muscle their way into “debate”, myself included) who endure the rigors of peer review, replication, emendation, and still humbly reach for the brass ring of genuine science, predictive power.

At the same time, while I wholeheartedly wish for a more civil political discourse to rule the airwaves and Intertubes one day, until that’s possible, I side with the call for more bile. Humorous aside: more yellow bile, please. The left has had far too much black bile. I also applaud Sam Smith’s commentary on the recent debate and dialogue, especially his observation:

But many citizens – dare I say most of them – lack the science and math needed to track along in one of those threads. Either that or they just don’t invest that heavily in the argument. Still, they vote, and the people they elect set policy, so I might be frustrated with their intellectual slothfulness but they damned sure matter, don’t they? Which means that we have to craft messages that resonate with them.

Does this mean we should “lie” to them? That isn’t what Chris was arguing. Instead, he was suggesting a standard persuasive rhetorical strategy: start with what they understand, then move them toward what they don’t.

This is where I go right back to framing and Otherwise and Chris.

OtherwiseInstead of climate science, we should just say, “Alabama’s going to get hit with a hundred tornadoes every year until the oil companies stop selling the carbon-free oil to China.”

Chris: I recognize that current weather is but one data point in the larger discussion, but does that mean it doesn’t have anecdotal value? I’m suggesting nothing more than using that anecdotal value for what it is—a way into popular consciousness—without making more of it than that. And as an anecdote, it at least has the power of being real and not apocryphal.

I propose we run with them both, then go another mile. Given that the only legit scoreboard in this toxic war of words shows 97 to 3, Climate Disruption Routs Skeptics, Cry Into Collective Beer Because Win Not Wanted, I’d say it hardly begs the question to start from the given, climate disruption, and move the frame game full-throttle to Horrifying Consequences versus the long-shot Science Deniers. Bookies should be offering odds to compete with those found in mega-lotteries if you want to place your money on the underdog Dens.

Horrifying Consequences? Let’s take a look at some of their starters:

Climate Disruption and Biodiversity
Current Biology

Harmful Marine Phytoplankton and Shellfish Toxicity Potential Consequences of Climate Change
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

Agriculture: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change
Cambridge University Press

Come Hell and High Water: Coping with the Unavoidable Consequences of Climate Disruption
Patrick Parenteau, Professor of Law and Senior Counsel, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, Vermont Law School

Climate change and human health: present and future risks
The Lancet

Widespread crown condition decline, food web disruption, and amplified tree mortality with increased climate change-type drought
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA Jet Propulsion Lab

Global warming and the disruption of plant–pollinator interactions
Ecology Letters

And, if those don’t rattle your nerves, how about

Climate change will shake the Earth
The Guardian
Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes, April 7, 2012

Maybe we shouldn’t even be playing the climate disruption card in the frame game. Something truly catchy and over-the-top like Cataclysmic Total Ecosystem Collapse Syndrome with Bubonic Herpes and Global Jersey Shore Onset with Free NASCAR-Flavored Beer with Boobs (CTECSBHGJSOFNFBB) might just galvanize the thinkers and un-thinkers alike. What? Too long, you think?

In all seriousness, it seems to me that if we, as a species, are to arrive at reasonable conclusions about urgent and necessary action on climate disruption to prevent and/or mitigate the Horrifying Consequences, the correct critical thinking sequence should be to:

  • observe the body of evidence,
  • eliminate the denialist frame of “we deserve a seat at this table, too” until they can justify having one,
  • move directly into well-documented, peer-reviewed, methodologically sound territory,
  • ask, “How the hell do we stop this crazy thing?”
  • reason our way to sound conclusions.

The underlying climate science is obviously critical. If we don’t answer that last question, though, there might not be anyone left to ask questions at all.

Image credits:

Framed Speech Bubbles: Adapted from image of speech bubbles by Tkgd2007 under Creative Commons license and image of picture frame by Glen Dahlman under Creative commons license.

Editorial cartoon: Tonight’s panel discussion is about labor issues by Mark Hurwitt with his kind permission.

All you need to know about Rick Santorum via Imgur, 2012

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