Why Framing Matters, Climate Change Edition

I wrote recently about Jonathan Adler’s conservative and libertarian argument for taking climate change seriously and adopting policies to respond to it. Here’s a recent paper that supports the importance of framing an argument effectively in order to get people to respond positively to it. The bottom line is that evidence rarely actually changes anyone’s mind on a subject they feel strongly about; the thing that can change their mind is an argument that appeals to their values and preconceptions.

David Roberts explains the study’s findings. It is tempting to think that if those who reject global warming and the need to make changes to prevent it from getting worse were just exposed to the facts, they would change their minds. But this study pretty clearly disproves that assumption:

However intuitively plausible this answer might be, it suffers from one important flaw: It is wrong. Better educated people are not less likely to be skeptics. Greater scientific literacy and reasoning abilitydo not incline people toward climate realism. Where skepticism exists, additional information and arguments only serve to reinforceit.

This has been evident for some time, but a fascinating new study inNature backs it up with numbers. Yale researcher Dan Kahan and his colleagues tested the question directly: Is it true that greater numeracy and scientific literacy reduce polarization about climate science?

Kahan found that, among those with low scientific literacy, assessment of climate risk was high among “egalitarian communitarians” (those with a worldview “favoring less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needs”) and low among “hierarchical individualists” (those with a worldview “that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority”).

So what happens as scientific literacy increases? The naive view — what Kahan calls the “science comprehension thesis,” or SCT — predicts that hierarchical individualists with high scientific literacy will more accurately perceive the risk and converge with egalitarian communitarians. But that’s not what happens…

As you can see, the SCT prediction is dead wrong — as science literacy and numeracy increase, polarization rises. Well-educated, carefully reasoning hierarchical individualists are less convinced of the danger of climate change.

The Kahan paper says:

The alternative explanation can be referred to as the cultural cognition thesis (CCT). CCT posits that individuals, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify. Whereas SCT emphasizes a conflict between scientists and the public, CCT stresses one between different segments of the public, whose members are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to their competing cultural philosophies.

And that is why it’s important to speak to them in a way that triggers a positive response rather than a tribalistic shutting down. Roberts explains:

The operative concept here is “motivated reasoning.” The idea is, we begin by absorbing the values of our tribes — what is and isn’t important, what is and isn’t a risk — and use whatever numeracy and scientific literacy we possess to seek out facts and arguments that support those views. Getting smarter, in other words, only makes us better at justifying our own worldviews. It does not necessarily give us more scientifically accurate worldviews.

Kahan suggests a better way:

As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups.

None of this requires being dishonest. It just requires speaking to people in a language they are likely to be open to, making the case on grounds that appeal to them rather than trigger an emotional, kneejerk reaction. That’s how effective coalitions are formed and it’s how people change their minds. We can sit on opposite sides of a wall screaming at each other and calling the other side crazy, stupid and dangerous, and for a lot of people we’d be right to do so. But if we want to actually change the minds of some of them, there’s a better strategy.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, I don’t gotta worry about that a whole bunch. General literacy, never mind scientific literacy, is only about 80% in the county I live in (something that is mirrored in a LOT of counties). Those who are scientifically literate, at least in my experience, are either employed by companies who pay them for using that literacy in service to its goals OR they’re in academia. The sciency folks in academia tend towards liberalism/progressivism and accepting peer reviewed scientific literature as being valid. The industrial sciency type are generally inclined to believe/rationalize whatever justifies their taking a check from the nuke, plastics manufacturer, Megameat* and the like.

    Politicians who understand science also understand that if it costs them votes it is BAD.

    I get what Ed is saying and if I ever find someone who is a reasonable AGW denier I will try to be patient and help bring him around to a different view. Meanwhile, I will still be telling the lyingfuckbagmoronz to shut their pieholez until they get AND use an education.

    * Some beef producer wants to locate a “herd” of 75K cattle in the county I live in–they will not be a happy herd.

  2. d cwilson says

    Which brings us back to Tommy Lee Jones’ line from Men in Black:

    People are dumb, panicky creatures.

    Scientists and skeptics always assume that the rational argument will prevail. But to get the tribe to move in the direction you want, you have to appeal to their emotions. Ailes and Murdoch understand this. That’s why everything on Fox is designed to appeal to the id. Flashy graphics for scene transitions, loud music, and hyperbolic headlines are designed to hit you in the gut. The wording of everything put in the teleprompter is carefully chosen to frame things so as to create the impression that the tribe is under constant attack.

    They don’t leave lust out of the equation either. It’s no coincidence that most of their news readers are blond Nordic types or that female panelists on shows like The Five are positioned on the ends of the table and dressed in short skirts and high heels. It’s all calculated to appeal to their target demo.

    As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values.

    Which is why we’re pretty much f**ked at this point. We’re in a culture that values short-term gratification and disdains long-term planning. Preparing for Global Warming is the ultimate long-term challenge and we’re expecting people who won’t pay an extra 1% in taxes to fix our crumbling infrastructure to give a rat’s ass what the world will be like 50 years from now.

  3. slc1 says

    I think that Richard Dawkins’ short essay on Kurt Wise is appropriate here. What Dawkins said about Wise and evolution undoubtedly applies to other manufactured scientific controversies, in particular, climate change. Replace Kurt Wise with, say, Fred Singer and evolution with climate change, in the following extract.

    Whatever the underlying explanation, this example suggests a fascinating, if pessimistic, conclusion about human psychology. It implies that there is no sensible limit to what the human mind is capable of believing, against any amount of contrary evidence. Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.

  4. jaranath says

    Yeah… I like the message, but at what point do we admit we’ve drilled down to the crazy, stupid and dangerous reserves and found them to be vast?

    I don’t necessarily mean they’re really crazy and stupid, mind you…just running with the meme. But look at creationism. They may suggest based on this work that we need to convince creationists that accepting evolution won’t ruin their religion, or is even positively compatible with it. But (and here’s where I’m not sure it isn’t dishonest), we know it often DOES ruin religious faith, and we know it’s NOT compatible with most interpretations of the Bible. Not to mention that we have to consider who people will trust: Their own pastors or us, who if we’re religious at all will be relatively more liberal and watered-down.

    Still, I think it’s good advice and research worth knowing about, and worth using to bring at least some fence-sitters over.

  5. scienceavenger says

    …communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values.

    Blah, blah, blah. Anyone who’s been reading science blogs for any length of time has heard all this before. By contrast, what we hear markedly little is specific applications of this strategy. Show me the argument for a 4.5 billion year old earth with interelated changing species that doesn’t threaten the group values of Biblical literalists. Show me the argument for man-made global warming damaging the planet that doesn’t threaten the group values of those who believe man was put on earth by gawd to have dominion over it. Bell the cat please.

  6. says

    I think scienceavenger is beating up a straw man. No one is arguing that one can always convince another person by presenting one’s argument in a certain way, only that one is more likely to convince another person that way. Of course it’s true that some people will always be unreachable by any argument under any circumstances. But that hardly undermines the argument being made here.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    I disagree. Whether the issue is evolution or climate change, the problem isn’t that arguments for them aren’t being framed properly, it’s that the disbelievers have already embraced an emotional, egocentric world view that makes it impossible to reach them.

    For the evolution denialists, modern biology can’t be true because that would deny that were specifically created by their deity, in HIS image, and destined to rule this world in HIS name. If evolution were true, it would mean that we are just another species of ape that got to the top by mere chance and that will become extinct one day without anyone in the universe noticing. There would be no cosmic-justice-dealing deity to send us to Heaven if we’ve been good and no Hell to consign the people we don’t like for an eternity of unthinkable torture.

    Well, we can’t have that. So pack up the kids, mother! We’re going to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum! Amen! Hallelujah! Praise JEEZ-us!

    For anti-environmentlaists, AGW can’t be true because that would mean that mean that the capitalist system that is a large part of our culture is poisoning us. It would mean that government would be able to march in to take away our “economic freedoms” and our private property rights to save the planet. All of our hard work and investment lost in the name to save forest and “inferior” animals. It would mean those dirty hippies and egg-headed scientists were right, and the patriotic small-business man is wrong. Like evolution, global warming would show human beings that we are NOT the most important thing in the universe, and that our continued (if temporary) survival would mean having to sacrifice more than what they care to.

    So pave the Earth and damn the green socialists and their eco-communism!

    Good luck to Adler and his “framing” business. He’s going to need it.

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    OK Ed, “frame” an emotional argument that would reach a Creationist or a Climate Denier.

    Show us poor, benighted, fact-based fools how it’s done.

  9. slc1 says

    I certainly hope that we are not going to have another brouhaha over the issue of “framing”, such as occurred at Scienceblogs several years ago.

  10. jaranath says

    I don’t think it undermines the argument either. But it’s not always more likely that this approach will be very effective. Creationism is about religion. And when it’s an essential part of the religion, good luck using religion to persuade believers. And even the “moderates” have a disincentive to trust you because evolution and good science ARE corrosive to faith.

  11. bobaho says

    One thing that the Wisconsin election should have demonstrated that the benefit of framing is not necessarily only to convince the opponent, but to also influence those who who may be following. You may not be able to convince the “other side” of the validity of your position, in fact I doubt you would ever win that debate. However, you may be able to gain sympathy from those who would otherwise be opposed to it. Judging from the outcome, it’s clear that one side did a magnificent job of framing their argument that recalls should only punish malfeasance not policy. That is the exact opposite of the successful CA recall, where policy was the center of their framing argument. The same people making a different argument but framing so they got the response they desired.

  12. Chris from Europe says

    @bobaho
    TRMs had that the Republicans had convinced people through their massive campaign even before the Democrats started theirs.

    On the other side, Wisconsinites deserve what they get. Three strikes and they are out! (Walker, Johnson instead of Feingold, Walker again) Nuke them.

  13. Jordan Genso says

    Did anyone else notice the irony in this post.

    Ed wrote (with my emphasis):

    Here’s a recent paper that supports the importance of framing an argument effectively in order to get people to respond positively to it. The bottom line is that evidence rarely actually changes anyone’s mind on a subject they feel strongly about; the thing that can change their mind is an argument that appeals to their values and preconceptions.

    Followed by his source (with my emphasis):

    Greater scientific literacy and reasoning abilitydo not incline people toward climate realism. Where skepticism exists, additional information and arguments only serve to reinforceit.

    This has been evident for some time, but a fascinating new study in Nature backs it up with numbers.

    So if I disagreed with Ed before reading this blog post, the odds are I still disagree with him?

    On a more serious note, I think what this means is that some communities are swayed by evidence, while others are not. Those of us reading this blog probably fall into the former (if this blog post had any impact on our position), but the article is discussing the latter.

    I think most often, people form arguments based on what would convince themself if they were the other person, rather than figuring out what would be the most effective strategy based on the person they are trying to convince.

    So if we’re the type that is swayed by evidence, I think we’re more likely to use it. And those that don’t care about evidence (and therefore don’t use any in their argument) probably won’t be successful in changing the minds of those who do care about evidence.

  14. says

    None of this requires being dishonest.

    If “the language they speak” is a language of distortion, obfuscation, misuse of words, and outright lies, then yes, it sometimes does.

    It just requires speaking to people in a language they are likely to be open to, making the case on grounds that appeal to them rather than trigger an emotional, kneejerk reaction.

    Yeah, and then the group’s opinion-makers respond by triggering all the emotional kneejerk reaction necessary to shout down your oh-so-carefully-framed arguments and remind the group that you’re the foreigner and you can never be trusted. Even Satan can quote the Bible and all that.

    The other problem with this strategy is that even if you convince the intelligentsia in a group, you won’t convince the rank-and-file who embrace the ideology because it suits their emotions, prejudices, and short-sighted fears and perceived needs.

    Also, as others have said here, sometimes mockery and aggressive debunking really do work: it doesn’t get immediate deconversions, but it does get people to think, and to be less confident that their party line is THE One True Path, and, in many cases, to deconvert later on.

  15. says

    I certainly understand the cynicism about framing, especially given that there were a lot of really bad framers in recent memory who seemed to favor crippling overspecialization in politeness instead of the “combined arms” approach. There’s no one way to reach everyone, but sometimes changing the frame can be advantageous.

    My dad and I had a few moments where we managed to do it on a wingnut coworker of ours, changing the frame to a different “conservative” one. Even if it doesn’t get him to question his beliefs in the long run, it was at least fun to see him continually interrupt himself whenever cognitive dissonance showed up mid-sentence.

  16. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    The bottom line is that evidence rarely actually changes anyone’s mind on a subject they feel strongly about; the thing that can change their mind is an argument that appeals to their values and preconceptions.

    Haven’t they found a cure for this yet?

  17. geraldmcgrew says

    The attempts to frame the climate change argument in ways that are supposed to appeal to political conservatives and libertarians all seem to be rather naive, IMO.

    For example, the post from earlier this week about framing it around property rights, and how if one party is doing something that’s detrimental to someone else’s property, that should be reason to stop the damage. I’ve personally tried this approach with a tea party libertarian acquaintance of mine, and it doesn’t even come close to being persuasive. He just countered that a direct link between party X’s actions and someone else’s property damage hasn’t, and likely can’t, be made. Further, he fell back on the standard libertarian argument of the property owner “voting with his boots”. IOW, he just needs to move. (He’s used that same argument when discussing schools, roads, etc.)

    This very much reminds me (and obviously many others) of the efforts to try and convince creationists of the validity of evolution. There are very precious few cases where it’s even possible, and with those the creationist has to be willing to take on the risk of alienating family and friends. That’s a rare set of stars that has to line up.

    I’ve always felt that evolution will be more widely accepted in the US once more clergy, pastors, etc. tell their congregations that it’s ok. Creationists won’t listen to the likes of us, but they will listen to their religious leaders. Likewise, warming denialists won’t listen to us, but they will listen to their political leaders.

  18. Michael Heath says

    Jordan Genso writes:

    I think what this means is that some communities are swayed by evidence, while others are not.

    Well the evidence convincingly supports your notion as well as Bob Altemeyer’s found and Mooney reports regarding more recent studies. However I think we continue to pound-on about the symptom where one root cause isn’t sufficiently pounded – that we’re complete failures formally teaching even rudimentary critical thinking.

    We’re such failures our K-12 teaching industry and the journalism industry is exemplary at illustrating our inability to think critically rather than providing beacons of what we should strive to achieve. I bring both industries up precisely because it seems to me such skills should be a minimum capability only one step above being able to show-up on time in both industries. Especially since such skills are not difficult to either teach or learn.

    Of course this defect solved, overtly teach critical thinking universally as an on-going endeavor at all formal education levels, will not result in zero defects. But I am confident it would greatly reduce the number of adult religionists and authoritarians and would significantly increase the quality of the remainders’ dissent and therefore the quality of their opposition. I think such training would also provide motivation and political capital to address the other root causes and solve them as well.

  19. Jordan Genso says

    @19 Michael Heath

    Absolutely, I agree.

    My first comment was originally going to be something along the lines of:

    Rather than changing our framing to match the audience, we could instead try to fix the audience. They are at fault for not caring about evidence, and so we as a society could attempt to correct that.

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