Beware the Frame

July 29, 2010

Republican or Democrat? Stay in Iraq or pull out? More troops in Afghanistan or come home? For or against health insurance reform? Support or oppose President Obama? MSNBC or FOX News? Science or religion?

Such are examples of choices with which we are presented on a daily basis. Yet these choices do not always reflect all reasonable possibilities. In fact, often they do not. This is because the choices given often reflect a desired framing. That is, those presenting the choices present them in a certain way, or present only certain choices, to help win you over to their side. One example of this is found in a recent essay by Karl Giberson, vice president of BioLogos Foundation . Giberson writes:

Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God? My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

For Giberson, a person can only be one of three things: a dogmatic, close-minded fundamentalist religionist who denies science; a “scientismist” (my word for the purpose of this post) who doubts anything that is not scientifically verifiable; or, a traditionally religious believer. Why does Giberson limit his frame to these three choices? 

To fill in or expand the frame to include all possible choices, one must think critically about the choices being presented, who is presenting them, and why they might be presenting them in a certain way. Let us consider Giberson’s organization, BioLogos. Founded by Dr. Francis Collins, BioLogos seeks to address “the escalating culture war between science and faith, promoting dialog and exploring the harmony between the two. … [BioLogos] addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life.” Giberson’s position, then, should be rather clear: science is compatible with traditional Christianity, and the only other possible approaches are the outright rejection of science (fundamentalist religious believers) or the belief that science can weigh in on everything and anything that is worthwhile (scientismists).

But the landscape is much richer than that. Between fundamentalist religious believers and scientismists, yet outside Giberson’s position, there are many reasonable (and happy) secularists and liberal religionists who recognize science has both great explanatory power and epistemological limits. Of course, if one wants to write about the landscape of worldviews and communicate it clearly, one needs to set up some categories. But why limit yourself to three? Or, at least, why Giberson’s three? Because Giberson wants you to believe you have to choose between fundamentalism on either side, or the most reasonable position, traditional religion in the middie (where he is, unsurprisingly). But, as seen, those are not the only three choices. 

Not all choices are framed, and not all frames are incomplete. A trusted medical doctor telling you to pick surgery over chemotherapy is most likely not excluding some other reasonable way of treating your cancer. But Giberson’s framing job, and those like it, serves to prevent the public from making an informed decision about which of the full range of positions seem most reasonable. Giberson, news agencies, and others will give us what they want us to hear (or, for many media outlets, what they think will sell , but that is another issue). We shouldn’t expect anything different. But we should be willing to investigate the frame we have been given so that we are sure nothing is missing.