Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Assessing Frames

In discussing yesterday's diatribe, Kerry was exactly right to bust me on a bit of inexcusable sloppiness:

You surprise me here when you write that "THAT [ID as a political, not scientific issue] is the frame we need, because that is the truth of the matter and the frame that gives us the real advantage." My question is: how can a frame be "the truth of the matter"? I'm probably just not understanding C&F (although you've given me plenty of opportunity in past posts), but for me, "frame" suggests a perspective, a heuristic specially chosen because of the particular spin it puts on things (I take it that's what you're getting at when you say that thinking of ID as political "gives us the real advantage"). In fact, I take the act of "framing" to be always perspectival, sometimes polemical, sometimes benign. So frames can be interesting or uninteresting, agreeable or disagreeable, coherent or incoherent, dangerous or innocuous. But true or false?
This is dead on right. I committed a category mistake. Sentences are true or false, frames are not sentences and therefore not to be labeled true or false.

At the same time, there do seem to be notions like inappropriate or misleading that are applicable. Can we judge frames? If so, on what criteria?

All conversation must occur within language and George Lakoff's notion of "frmaing" brings out the point that the words we use in couching our debates are not neutral, but bring with them pre-suppositions, connotations, and other question-begging elements. They lead our minds in a direction which will affect how we approach and ultimately decide the question posed. Those who frame the debate very often win the debate and that victory is only partly on the merits of argument, the framing gives that side an advantage. He points out that Democrats have for a while now allowed Republicans to frame debates and have played within the frame (and lost most of the time), instead of attempting to fight the frame and reframe the questions in a more friendly fashion.

Since we will always use words, there will always be a frame. it is not a trick design to skew a conversaiton, but a strucutral aspect, the constitutive ground rules of the conversation. As such, the frame is not a set of propositions that we can judge, but a constructed playing field on which we go through the process of consideration. But that does not mean that frames are not capable of being assessed and some preferred on non-pragmatic grounds (that is, grounds other than "it best suits my political interests") and others condemned.

The best place to look for a similar case is scientific explanation. We can say a lot of things about a given scientific explanation -- that it is true or false, that is is god or bad, that it is complete or incomplete,... If I have a given phenomenon that I want explained, there is a complete explanation of it. But that complete explanation includes every operative factor, every relevant law of nature, and will be so complex and speecific to the details of the situation that it will really not explain much in the sense of providing an understanding (this is Nancy Cartwright's famous argument). Indeed, not only is a complete explanation not desirable, it is not even possible. Yet, we can think of what it would look like and following Peter Railton, call it the "ideal explanatory text." It is a complete explanation.

When someone asks for an explanation of a phenomenon, she is asking for a part of that ideal explanatory text. Different contexts, say a five year old asking why the sky is blue and a geophysicist considering light scattering in the atmosphere with all its pollution may both pull from the same ideal explanatory text, but what is pulled will be very different in the two contexts. What is a good or appropriate explanation in one case will not suffice in the other. Context determines what is an acceptable or appropriate explanation.

An appropriate explanation may be true or false. If the phenomenon involves the thermodynamic properties of a gas, I may explain it using the ideal gas law, eventhough I know that the gas in question is not ideal (indeed, there are no ideal gasses). As such, I know that the operative principle is not descriptive of the real system, but it is a good heuristic device. If the law is a good approximation, then it will still be a good explanation if it gives me a sense of what the ideal explanatory text contains, even if it is not there. The solar system model of the atom, the flowing river of electrons picture of electric current are similar falsehoods that explain well.

But I could also give a coherent explanation that does not approximate, model, or resemble what is in the ideal explanatory text. If I talk about heat flow in terms of phlogiston, a heat liquid, then I am giving a heuristic device that I know leads us away from what is in the ideal explanatory text. In this way, I can use the word "false" for the explanation.

It is in this sense that I was considering a false frame. When we consider a policy issue, the question, like the explanation of a physical phenomenon, is inextricably entrenched in a myriad of complex interrelated factors. It is not possible for us to consider all of the social, political, economic, and personal effects that a decision will really bring about. We need to simply, we need to make a choice about which of these factors we will bring out on the table as the main considerations and this is the choice we make when we frame an issue.

In the case of intelligent design creationism in the classroom, there is the scientific question about the relative weight of the evidence, on one hand, and the political question about how we view science and its role in contemporary society, on the other. The frame that we saw in yesterday's news out of Texas is one that sets the question of openness in scientific debate and the relative confirmation of the theories as the central question. However, this is not actually the operative factor in the debate. It is misleading to present that debate as one that is ongoing among those who have training in the field. Instead, the real question here is one of political wrangling for power between those who have a particular religious conservative agenda and those who do not. To try to take this conversation and portray it as one about biology or about intellectual open-mindedness and fairness instead of being about political power is not merely to use words with one connotation instead of another (pro-life instead of pro-choice), rather it is to completely misrepresent the actual ideal explanatory text of the policy debate itself. In this way, the frame is a false frame because it not only distorts the conversation in the way that any framing does -- the act of choosing certain components over others will always warp the conversation -- but it is a red herring in placing the discussion on ground that is not actually relevant to the real issue at hand.