The Importance of Conversational Frames

Societies rely on tacit “frames” to conduct and understand conversations. One popular frame in Western democracies is the notion of “balance”—the idea that all sides of an issue deserve to be heard and that solutions can be found by balancing their demands and needs. This idea entails the assumption that all sides have a roughly symmetrical entitlement to be heard.

There is much merit to this notion. In Australian politics, the introduction of the GST (a VAT equivalent) was a case in point. After much parliamentary and public debate, a compromise was found by which food remained exempt from the GST—balancing the original plan of omnibus taxation with the need to control the basic costs of living. Similar examples abound in most Western democracies.

Resistance to such balance may deservedly earn the label “extremist,” although this label is applicable only when the media landscape in which a debate takes place is not systematically distorted.

Setting aside such possible distortions for now, “balance” is only one of several conversational frames in society. In some situations the idea of a symmetric entitlement of opinions is ludicrous, and an alternative frame is used that gives strong preference to one side over the other—for good reason: Few would propose that the needs and opinions of law enforcement ought to be “balanced” with those of organized crime. Tax revenues are legitimately reserved for the police and judiciary, and there is no “balancing” public expenditure for crime lords, Godfathers, and drug barons.

One would rarely be labelled “extremist” when invoking the Law in preference to protection rackets, bribery, or the armed militias of drug barons.

Tragedy strikes when a society confuses the applicability of those two very different frames.

Imagine what would happen to a country when the head of its national broadcaster accused the police and courts of “group think” and suggested that the Consigliere’s opinions should be given more weight by the judiciary. Imagine a country in which the leader of a major party referred to the Law as “crap” and met with one of the Godfathers for an extended private chat. Imagine a country in which the rule of law has been replaced with the rule of who can shout the loudest in the media.

Those are not just scary thoughts. They represent the frightening reality that has engulfed not just Australia but also—and perhaps even more so—the United States. Segments of those societies and the media have lost their grip on which conversational frame applies to the greatest scientific and ethical problems humanity has ever faced—climate change and how to deal with it by decarbonizing our economies.

The only “balance” that applies to climate science is that of evidence—and not of opinion or interests. In the same way that the verdicts of the courts should trump the protestations of organized crime, so the peer-reviewed literature must always trump internet cacophony or the opinions of ideological think tanks.

Tragically, however, the media now often “balance” science with noise that could be debunked in a few mouse clicks. In Australia, a Catholic Cardinal recently provided a perfect if stunning illustration of such ill-conceived “balance” when he gave Dr. Ayers, the Head of the Bureau of Meteorology, a public lesson—not in seeking prayer or avoiding divorce but in how to conduct science. Thumping a particularly egregious piece of fiction written by an individual with no relevant peer-reviewed publications but several directorships of mining corporations, the Cardinal called Dr. Ayers’s testimony to the Australian Senate … “unscientific.” Unscientific, because Dr. Ayers relied on the peer-reviewed literature in coming to his judgment that the Earth is warming owing to human CO2 emissions.

On the positive side, this incident underscores that in modern Catholicism Cardinals have latitude to ignore the Holy See’s opinions. On the more negative side, the largely uncritical and detached stance of the national media reveals that they have abandoned the distinction between evidence and noise, between peer-review and internet memes, between science and anti-scientific ideology.

Lest one think that the Cardinal’s episode is an isolated incident, recent research at the University of Queensland found that among Australian politicians, the percentage whose views on climate are influenced by scientists—as opposed to some other source, perhaps cat palmistry—ranges from 44% to 98% across the different parties. The extremist party that in its majority rejects science is on the conservative side of politics (called the Liberal Party), whereas the party that nearly exclusively relies on peer-reviewed science is the Greens—yet, the latter are readily labelled “extremist” by the media whereas the former are considered mainstream and “serious.”

This situation brings into focus several important questions: Does it matter? And how do we move on from here?

There are some good arguments that this faux “balance” and misrepresentation of science ought to be set aside—after all, the vast majority of Australians are convinced that climate change is happening and most also admit that humans are largely responsible (even if only indirectly; Leviston & Walker, 2010). In light of peak oil and other good reasons to abandon fossil fuels, perhaps we should just move on and transition to renewable forms of energy—which Australians seem to support by an overwhelming margin—and ignore the noise and inaccuracies in the media?

Two considerations speak against this option. First, there is some evidence that correct understanding of the causes of global warming is associated with people’s intentions to change relevant behaviours. For example, Bord et al. (2000) showed in a survey of more than 1000 Americans that “knowing what causes climate change, and what does not, is the most powerful predictor of both stated intentions to take voluntary actions and to vote on hypothetical referenda to enact new government policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (p. 205). Although this association may be moderated by other variables, such as political orientation (Malka et al., 2009), existing results leave little doubt that public misrepresentations of science are likely to have consequences, because public confusion about the science is one impediment to acting on climate change.

The second consideration may sound quaint in contemporary society but nonetheless cannot be ignored: It is simply a moral issue whether a society tolerates and acquiesces to systematic public misrepresentations and distortions of science and scientists. There is ample evidence for an association between public misperceptions of climate science and people’s preferred news outlets (Ramsay et al., 2010); people who preferentially get their news from Fox are most likely to be incorrectly informed about the state of climate science and in particular the consensus among climate scientists. This is not surprising in light of the recent revelation that casting doubt on climate data is a matter of editorial policy within this particular ”news” outlet.

So how do we move forward? Cognitive science has much to offer in this regard; from reframing to social norming and research on reasoning and ideology, we know much about barriers to public comprehension and action. That knowledge will be most helpful in assisting policy makers maximize the effectiveness of climate action.

But throughout, however the public debate may unfold, we must recognize that the only balance that counts in science is that of evidence. It appears inadvisable to lose track of that fact, even if segments of the media and society have slid into a bizarre corner from which evidence and reality appear “extremist” or “fundamentalist.”

(A shorter version of this article first appeared on The Conversation on 28 April 2011. It has been extended and updated for posting here)


Bord, R. J.; O’Connor, R. E. & Fisher, A. (2000). In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change? Public Understanding of Science, 9, 205-218.

Leviston, Z. & Walker, I. A. (2010). Baseline survey of Australian attitudes to climate change: Preliminary report. CSIRO (Behavioural Sciences Research Group).

Malka, A.; Krosnick, J. A. & Langer, G. (2009). The Association of Knowledge with Concern About Global Warming: Trusted Information Sources Shape Public Thinking
Risk Analysis, 29, 633-647.

Ramsay, C.; Kull, S.; Lewis, E. & Subias, S. (2010). Misinformation and the 2010 election: A study of the US electorate. Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland.