Dive into almost any issue in the news these days and it won’t take long to find a neuroscience angle. Morality has roots in the brain. Adolescence is best understood by what is not yet in the brain. The ebbs and flows of the stock market are tied to neural activations. And even the difference between liberal and conservative ideology can be seen in the brain.

This increased focus on neuroscience has brought with it brilliant studies with important applications in helping us understand and address social issues—like what a better system of juvenile justice looks like, how addiction can be prevented, and how we can identify and limit toxic stress to improve outcomes for children. Unfortunately this caravan of fantastic science is laced with a few stragglers—flawed studies and bad science. When these outliers get pointed out—and they usually do—we get a glimpse of how science, culture and public opinion come together to influence each other.

“Hot” areas of science inevitability produce some less-than-hot science. When you cross this reality with a fundamental public misunderstanding of what science is and how it works, you create a situation that leads people to throw the baby out with the bath water.

FrameWorks has found that Americans, Canadians, Brits and (especially) Australians model science, in part, as a fickle, uncertain and unreliable endeavor. I won’t get into why this is, but you don’t have to look too hard to see the ways in which this cultural model plays out in the media. When the science skepticism cultural model gets piqued by coverage of bad science or of the limitations of science, people start to question the validity of the entire endeavor.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this phenomenon on a trip to the UK, where, based on a couple of dodgy studies, there has been a recent backlash against the ability of neuroscience to say anything meaningful about the developmental effects of adverse childhood experiences or what constitutes effective interventions.

At a meeting of leading international developmental scientists I found myself in the middle of a conversation about this runaway anti-science trope—a trope that threatened the implications and applications of the solid science that members of this group had spent their lives developing. “How do we deal with this backlash?” they asked.

From a framing perspective, this moment and the conversation that followed were interesting for two reasons:

  1. You could see culture in action. The media’s questioning of neuroscience was causing members of the public to doubt the ability of all science to say anything about policy and programs. This was a strong reminder that culture is a powerful but not always rational shaper of how we think. Sure there are bad studies of the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the good ones can’t teach us valid and valuable lessons.
  2. You could see the difference between a science and communication science perspective. The developmental scientists’ resounding solution to the science-pushback was…do better science, reasoning that if they did better science, the problem would be solved. My perspective and that of communication scientists, however, was that while doing better science certainly wouldn’t hurt, getting people to think differently about science through better science communication was a vital part of the solution.

Doing quality neuroscience is certainly part of the answer, but, having better ways of communicating about neuroscience is vital in assuring that what we know about the brain informs what we do about social issues.


Making Connections: What the Science of Early Childhood Development Has to Tell us About Adult Addiction

by Nat Kendall-Taylor July 10, 2014 Uncategorized

There is a lot in the news these days about child development, with proposals to improve early learning in the US moving up the national agenda. There has also been some recent attention paid in the news media to the issue of addiction, with discussion of new treatment approaches. While these two issues are in [...]

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Resilience: The Buzz on Bouncing Back

by Nat Kendall-Taylor July 7, 2014 Uncategorized

These days it’s hard to avoid the term “resilience.” Communities are “resilient,” countries are “resilient,” leaders are “resilient,” and yes, soccer teams are as well.  And I’d wager that almost anything you come across in the popular media these days about child development is strewn with “resilience.” But what does it mean to say something [...]

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Rethinking the Health Frame: Values and the EPA’s Climate Change Regulations

by Andrew Volmert July 1, 2014 Framer Reads the News

As part of a recent weekly address, President Obama announced the EPA’s new draft regulations on carbon emissions. In that address, he adopted the frame du jour in climate change circles, concentrating on the health threats posed by climate change and emphasizing their gravity — what we call the “health frame.” The president spotlighted the [...]

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Reframing the Ordinary with Metaphors

by Michael Erard April 22, 2013 Framer Reads the News

There are some ordinary things in life that you think don’t need a metaphor. But once you hear the metaphor, it helps you see the ordinary in a whole new way. I found two cases that recently floated across my social media radar that are not only presented well, but are also immediately evident in [...]

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When Campaigns Go Bad: New York City’s Teenage Pregnancy Campaign

by Shannon Arvizu March 7, 2013 Framer Reads the News

The following guest post is authored by Susan Nall Bales, FrameWorks President. If FrameWorks had a Frames of Shame Award, New York City’s new Teen Pregnancy Campaign would be a strong contender.  It represents a series of catastrophic but classic mistakes about social issues campaigning.  In that regard, it is instructive. First, about the campaign: [...]

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Public Safety: The Pictures in Their Heads

by Robert Shore February 21, 2013 Framing in the Field

Public Safety is finally starting to get the time it deserves in the public conversation; but with an issue so complex and fraught with controversy, it’s easy for messages to get swallowed in the “swamp” of cultural models. In partnership with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University’s Law School [...]

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The Wedginess of Communicating Statistics

by Michael Erard February 14, 2013 Framer Reads the News

You may have noticed that scientists – as well as other professionals – frequently point to, write, talk, think about, and argue in terms of graphs, charts, and other visualizations of data. Sometimes, these visualizations are complex enough that they need to be explained, and in some cases, those explanations themselves give shape to the [...]

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Framing in the Field: The Power of Afterschool Learning

by Shannon Arvizu February 6, 2013 Framing in the Field

“It is now broadly understood that expanded learning programs can and must be much more than ‘graham crackers and basketball’ – that is, they can play a critical role in young people’s lives. But what does a real mind shift look like?” This is the question Michael Levine (Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at [...]

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Media Framing: When Journalists Keep It Real and What It Means for Advocates

by Shannon Arvizu January 10, 2013 Framer Reads the News

Is it a fallacy to think that the media could ever really be objective? This is a question posed by Jay Rosen from the PressThink blog. Rosen writes that the media’s endeavors to appear “fair and balanced” hide the framing decisions every journalist must make when presenting information. Instead of hiding under this objectivity pretense, [...]

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