Widening the Lens

Susan Nall Bales, A Framer Reads the News

In a recent article in the New York Times,[i] economist Justin Wolfers called attention to the rise of economics as the “queen of the social sciences” – by which he meant, the go-to discipline for answers to most of the questions that most Americans ask most of the time. In an analysis of the entire Times archive, Wolfers found “around one in 100 articles mentions the term ‘economist’” while a similar search of the Congressional Record over the past 25 years “finds the term ‘economist’ most likely to be mentioned, followed by historians and psychologists.”

So ingrained in our culture is the economic perspective that it seems almost strange to question its relevance. But, as Wolfers points out, we could just as easily have adopted a sociological lens from which to view our society.  And he offers up his own theory about why this might be so: “Of course, sociologists, whose comparative advantage is in offering structural explanations, might point to the fact that their field has no equivalent of the business pages, that the president does not receive advice from a Council of Sociological Advisors, and that there’s little demand from Wall Street for sociological insights.” And, like a good economist, Wolfers concludes with an explanation of why this imbalance is so prevalent: “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” In all fairness, this may be Wolfer’s humor, as he offers a vigorous defense of what is lost when a sociological perspective is drowned out by the singular economic explanation.

FrameWorks sees evidence of this imbalance every time we engage Americans in thinking about social issues. The economic explanation is pervasive, but its real significance is in the way that it invites people to default to their most familiar ways of understanding the world—individualism. Seeing the world through a lens of individualism, outcomes are understood as the product of individual choices based on rational assessments of the costs and benefits of a given decision, multiplied by willpower and perseverance.

This imbalance between economic explanations and sociological ones should come as no surprise. It is built into our culture – a highly, individualistic culture in which securing goods and choosing wisely are promoted everywhere as the stepping stones to success. Those structural forces – embedded with impediments particular to race, age, class, gender, etc. – are largely invisible.  People aren’t just making this stuff up. It is reinforced by their mediated experience – the way that everyday discourse and news media tell them what social issues are about and how to interpret them. Systematic analyses of media coverage conducted by FrameWorks make clear that social problems are interpreted as resulting from individual acts far more often than they are attributed to societal forces. Obesity? A story about lack of willpower. Addiction? Ditto. Poverty? Bad pluck, bad luck. Poverty in old age? If you had saved and made the right financial decisions, you would be on a cruise by now.

There are profound consequences for our society from this imbalance of perspective.   Exposed to a daily diet of “news you can use” to improve your economic lot and your willpower, we are predisposed to use these explanatory tools to explain a wide range of socio-political phenomena. Borrowing C. Wright Mills’ terminology, Americans become quick to see all social problems as the result of “troubles” – or problems that occur within the character of the individual – and blind to “issues” or what he described as “public matters” because they have to do with the organization of society as a whole.

Reflecting what we know from an ever-expanding array of scholarly literature that demonstrates that the solutions people choose to address problems are tightly bounded by their problem definition, the vast majority of FrameWorks’ informants would prescribe individual behavior change to address everything from climate change to educational inequities and biases in the criminal justice system.

What is to be done to help people see sociologically? Many years ago, the Berkeley Media Studies Center began to draw a distinction between narratives that were constructed as “portraits” vs. “landscapes.” FrameWorks has attempted to make this distinction a part of experts’ and advocates’ storytelling repertoire by creating an online tool – Wide Angle Lens – that dissects just exactly how our habits of storytelling return again and again to the individual portrait – and what can be done to counter this tendency. Getting more context into the story is not easy – but it can be done. Showing how people are affected by environments, how as the California Endowment puts it “what surrounds us shapes us” is all about redressing the imbalance that our highly individualistic culture promotes. Try it on for size and see if your stories don’t fare better in evoking more systemic observations from your fellow citizens.

Keynes got it right: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” By widening the lens, we can preserve the insights particular to economics but leaven them with observations from across the social sciences suitable to actually understanding how social problems work.

[i] Wolfers, Justin. January 27, 2015. How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation. New York: New York Times.


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

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 health impacts of “carbon pollution,” arguing that the sources of carbon emissions threaten the health of Americans and that, in their first year alone, the new regulations would help avoid “up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks.”

The president’s adoption of the health frame constitutes a logical appeal to public engagement but, as FrameWorks’ research shows, on its own, this frame will do little to convince the public of climate change’s existence, seriousness, and the viability of solutions available to us.

The health frame’s current popularity stems from the plausible intuition that helping the public understand that climate change affects people, not just polar bears, will motivate them to take the issue more seriously. And the frame can be effective if it is used the right way. The problem with simply describing the health impacts of climate change and playing up their seriousness is that, while this may convince the public that climate change is a big problem, it also triggers the public’s sense of fatalism — that the problem is so serious that there is little that can be done to fix it.

With a small tweak, the president’s message could have been much more effective. The health frame’s power to motivate can be effectively harnessed if the discussion of health impacts is embedded within an effective values frame. As FrameWorks’ research shows, the value of Protection  — emphasizing the need to shield people from harm and reducing risk by protecting habitats — enables communicators to circumvent the fatalism trap by orienting people toward collective action. In this way, Protection prompts people to treat needed policies as actionable steps that can make a difference. When Protection is coupled with basic information about health impacts, the result is a highly effective message that not only convinces people that there’s a real problem but also generates support for needed policy measures.

In short, when it’s used along with Protection to emphasize solutions, the health frame works.  Left to its own devices, the health frame does little to advance robust policy thinking.

Reframing the Ordinary with Metaphors

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 their necessity.

The first is a video by Canadian sex educator K.B. Chan, based on an essay, “Toward a Performance Model of Sex,” by a feminist writer with the pseudonym Thomas MacAulay Millar. It compares sex to a jam (“not as in a fruit spread, but as in a musical jam”) – in other words, sex is something fun that people do consensually together, which is a sex-positive metaphor if there ever was one.

By referencing sex as a social activity, this particular metaphor produces many useful entailments. In FrameWorks-speak, “entailments” are the statements that mark the boundaries of the category that’s created when you put two or more domains (or items from domains) together. (And more specifically, often the entailments look like matches between the two domains. Sometimes people interpret the entailments automatically and tacitly; sometimes you present them explicitly.) In the case of “sex as a jam,” its power lies mainly in its entailments, and it’s worth working explicitly through them, which the video does. For example, if sex is a jam, then the participants need to be willing and ready to play, which opens up an interesting way to define what sexual consent looks like, among other things. The metaphor becomes a prescriptive model for social behavior.

So does the second metaphor, which came from a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goldman, providing instructions about what people should say to whom when there’s a tragedy, an illness, or some other trauma. They call it the “ring theory,” and they begin with an anecdote about a woman named Katie, who had been hospitalized with a brain aneurysm.

The “ring theory” works like this:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.The rules of kvetching

Once this easily generated social map is in place, now you can use it to make rules of behavior  concrete:

The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

The whole “ring theory” or “kvetching order” can all be operationalized in terms of a very simple rule: Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Of course, before FrameWorks would recommend these metaphors, we would want to see how they performed in research settings, but there are still a few things are worth noting for the commnity of framers. One is the way these metaphors are presented in a dynamic, fetching and highly visual way. Another is the confident deployment of metaphors for the reframing of two very seemingly ordinary and obvious processes. At FrameWorks, we deploy metaphors to explain complex or abstract processes, but sometimes, even the ordinary and obvious needs to be re-categorized, especially when these realms – like empathy and sex – involve social subtleties that people can’t afford to screw up in real life.

Have you seen any instances recently where a metaphor re-frames an ordinary phenomenon?

(Ring illustration by Wes Bausmith for the Los Angeles Times)

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

The following guest post is authored by Susan Nall Bales, FrameWorks President.

y-teen-popupIf 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: follow along by accessing “City Campaign Targeting Teenage Pregnancy Draws Criticism” in today’s New York Times.  The central strategy is to present victimized children who are destined to fail because they were born to teen mothers. A complementary game follows a pregnant Latina teenager through her day as she is routinely ostracized for her “choice.” National stats about the connections between teen pregnancy and drop out rates are used to credential the campaign message. The call to action is “not now.”

For starters, this campaign gets the social analysis wrong.  Kudos to Planned Parenthood of New York which immediately recognized this fundamental flaw at the heart of the campaign strategy and spoke up.  “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” said their spokesperson.  Indeed, this campaign ignores a public health approach in favor of messages that assert individual responsibility.  In fact, the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration admits that the goal of the campaign “was to send a message about personal responsibility that would resonate with teenagers.”  In buying in to a myopic, individualist view in which individual actors choose their fates regardless of the environments, conditions and opportunities that surround them, the campaign sponsors ignored their responsibilities as public health educators.  In choosing the “target” of the campaign as the teenagers themselves, they demonstrated profound disregard for decades of social science that show that social determinants matter greatly or “what surrounds us shapes us.”

I am remembering a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss in which he attempted to reconstruct a battle scene and observed, “What does it matter as long as the wounds fit the arrows?”  I have interpreted that to suggest that good meaning-making depends upon matching cause and effect and making sure that they are in alignment.  In this case, the vectors were wrong.  The wounds were perceived as self-inflicted, so the size, shape, origin and location of the arrows didn’t much matter.

Really – don’t New Yorkers deserve better than this?   What’s curious about this campaign is its context – New Yorkers have been greatly educated by the lessons of social responsibility put forward by the city’s ban on sugary drinks.  Even the ads associated with this campaign often reflect the recognition that the problem has a primary cause beyond individual responsibility. “Portions have changed,” reads one ad, “and so has Type 2 diabetes.” On this issue, responsibility for changing up the circumstances in which people make decisions has been front and center. This campaign appropriately connects the “epidemic of obesity” with the ubiquitous, irresponsible marketing of sugar in ways that make it extremely difficult for individuals to opt out.  As well as recognizing that cultural norms play a big part in our “going along” with the dominant paradigms and lifestyles of our time.

It is the very contrast between these two campaigns that is so interesting.  Do public officials not recognize that there is an ideology inherent in any campaign, that where you assign responsibility has consequences for how people learn to see the world and to interpret those same statistics?  If they are primed to see them through the lens of individual responsibility, they are less likely to care about budget cuts that take funds away from single mothers and poor people more generally.  If they see those statistics as symptoms of unaddressed structural inequalities, they are far more likely to engage with preventive and remedial policies.  While the Teenage Pregnancy Campaign purports to address itself to at-risk teenagers, it fails to take responsibility for its polluting influence on the rest of us.  It is teaching us, with every ad to which we are exposed in those bus shelters throughout the city, that teen pregnancy is an act of choice in the face of a clear decision-making tree.  Mothers, it infers, willfully put their own children’s future at risk by their irresponsible acts.

And this brings us to another error in the social analysis: the assertion of determinism.  By using population level statistics to explain the fate of each individual face in the ad, the campaign plays irresponsibly to the strong American cultural model of determinism. Those children are clearly doomed – the emotional base of the ads turns around this trope.  What is overlooked are strong findings from neuroscience that the presence of a loving and caring parent can buffer children from the effects of toxic stress resulting from extreme poverty and exposure to violence.  Or the fact that effective programs that engage children throughout their development can yield positive outcomes.  It all depends how many negative factors get stacked on their resilience scale and the strength and accessibility of positive factors to counterbalance.  By hardening the fate of the children in these ads, the Teenage Pregnancy Campaign diminishes the importance and effects of intervening variables which can make all the difference in these children’s lives.   New Yorkers have a need and a right to know about such programs as they decide how to spend their public health preventions and interventions to improve the city’s future.

Consider the facts used in the campaign: a child born to a teenage mother who has not finished high school and is not married is nine times more likely to be poor than a child born to an adult who has finished high school and is married.  By focusing on teen pregnancy, this campaign chose to ignore the other variables in the equation.  How about focusing on the relationship between education and poverty, or the difficulty of returning to school in our society, or the lack of quality child care available to moms who work and are trying to get their GED?  Or cuts to afterschool and mentoring programs? The reductionist nature of this campaign only becomes evident if you know where to look for what’s missing.  Let’s face it – most people won’t be encouraged to do so by this campaign.

“But what about the ‘research’ that was done to inform the campaign?”, supporters will ask. This is what “focus groups with teenagers, parents of teenagers and parents who had children when they were teenagers” told the marketing firm that came up with this campaign strategy.  Well, there’s research and there’s research.  In this case, I do not doubt that many informants voiced explanations for their failures, hopes and fears that echo this ad.  “We humans overdetect agency,” concludes Brian Boyd in a comprehensive review of the relationship between the way our brains function and the stories we tell ourselves about the world (Boyd, Brian.  2009. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press).  That is, we have a structural, in-built tendency to assign responsibility to individual actors who are seen as having control over conditions, regardless of facts to the contrary.  Compound this with a culture that is highly individualistic and the tendency of focus groups to play to cultural expectations and norms and – voila! – you have a recipe for this precise campaign.  The goal of qualitative research should not be to find out where people are stuck and to play to it, but rather to appreciate what it would take to get people to see the dynamics of an issue in ways more proximate to those recognized by experts in the field.   New Yorkers do not walk around asking themselves, “I wonder what causes teenage pregnancy,” but when engaged in explanations that comport with the science and social science of the issue, our research strongly suggests that they can appreciate causes, effects and the value of effective interventions.  This campaign offers nothing new and simply hardens old stereotypes.

The racial and ethnic stereotyping in the ads and the game have been well acknowledged by critics.  Certainly, these ads reflect and play to odious images of Latinas.  Again, marketers will tell you that they wanted to “connect” with the prime at-risk population.  But the rest of us are subject to these ads as well and unprotected from the connections they forge in our minds between irresponsible behaviors and young Latinas.

Mr. Mayor, tear down those bus shelter ads.  They pollute the public discourse about how society can help families and children prepare our children for meaningful lives and work.  Give us something we can sink our teeth into, something that educates us about the root causes of the problem – give us something to do as a society that helps, not hurts, folks who are trying to find their way up in a very stuck social structure.

The Wedginess of Communicating Statistics

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 debate.

Take, for instance, the climate change “wedge.”

The wedge was introduced by Princeton University physicist Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen Pacala in a 2004 Science article as a way to communicate about approaches to reduce the effects of climate change. Originally they proposed fifteen “wedges” – specific ways to reduce global CO2 emission output using existing technologies that would take a wedge-shaped chunk out of the ever-rising line marking carbon emissions. Such wedges represent the carbon emissions that would have to be halted in order to stop temperature increases and “stabilize” climate change. Pictured here is a graph from the National Resource Defense Council that show six of these “stabilization wedges.”


As a way to communicate about carbon emissions and interventions to reduce them, how successful has the “stabilization wedge” been? Using Google hits as one measure, we might say not very; that exact phrase and related ones (such as “climate wedge”) barely get 100,000 hits combined. Neither is “wedge” a very frequent word in English, and it’s most often used in golfing contexts (for example, “sand wedge”) or in cooking (“lemon wedge”). We might also say that carbon emissions have not, in fact, decreased, nor has public or international will to reduce carbon emissions shown much progress. Using these sorts of hard measures, “stabilization wedge” hasn’t done very much.

On the other hand, Socolow himself has suggested that “stabilization wedge” has been very successful – maybe too much so, because it made carbon emission reductions so easy to think about that people assumed it was easy to do. In a 2011 talk, he said that he regrets the term:

 “With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” Socolow says.  “There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal.”

He said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.

(This reporting on Socolow’s disavowal created a micro-controversy, because Socolow responded immediately after his remarks were quoted to say that he stands by the 2004 paper’s call to action. Later, he published another commentary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that affirmed the 2004 paper as well as the concept of wedges.)

Rather than focus on the carbon emissions debate itself – or what Socolow thinks about wedges – I want to make some observations about the wedge as a communications device.

What is a wedge?  From a FrameWorks perspective, the wedge is something between a metaphor and social math. It’s a metaphor because it describes the phenomenon of emissions stabilization using another domain (here, a very simple geometric figure). It’s also a kind of social math because it’s transforming numbers (or a mapping of numbers) into something concrete that people will more find more usable.

You could say that that “stabilization wedge” is a tool for making the emissions reduction graph sticky – as well as achieving some other effects.

Are wedges good? The “stabilization wedge” seems to defuse crisis types of thinking about climate change issues, and from FrameWorks perspective, that’s a good thing.  Our communications tools work because they change people’s posture, from being frozen in crisis to leaning into action. Clearly, “wedges” have that effect.

Is wedginess good? “Wedginess” is my neologism for the way that “stabilization wedge” works – that is, it’s a word or phrase that describes a geometic or spatial quality of a line on a graph as a stand-in for the phenomenon. The wedgy is also a stand-in for metaphors that are directly related to that phenomenon. Maybe it seems odd to have to explain a graph. But you give people a powerful communications lever when you enable them to grasp a graph automatically, point to it, talk about it, and use it to generate other ideas.

There are other wedgy phrases out there. It turns out that scientists aren’t the only wedgy communicators:

Peak oil. Here the “peak” refers to the fall-off in petroleum extraction, not increases in petroleum depletion. The fall-off occurs because the price of extraction has risen too high. As a term, this is highly sticky, despite the fact that it’s easily misinterpreted as oil depletion.

Headstart fadeout. Here the “fadeout” refers to the apparent decline in cognitive, affective, and social benefits of Head Start programs for poor children.

Fiscal cliff. Contrary to the way “fiscal cliff” was wielded in recent US Congressional debates, the “cliff” originally described a line on a graph: a drastic drop in government revenue. “Fiscal cliff” was used this way by Henry Waxman in 1991 to describe a voter initiative in Oregon that limited property tax increases.

Does your organization have a single chart or graph that captures the dilemma or problem that you’re working on, and how do you talk about that graph? Do you have wedgy ways of communicating about it? 

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

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, the press should, in effect, keep it real. Rosen proposes that journalists should be upfront about their biases towards the issue, “show their work,” verify their sources, and stay away from “false balance” in the name of “professional journalism” (since such a thing never really existed anyway).

As more journalists adopt this new form of “authentic self” reporting, what does this mean for advocates? Let’s dig a little deeper into the notion of media framing.

Gamson and Mogdigliani (1987) define a media frame as “a central organizing idea or storyline that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events…The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the essence of the issue.”

A media frame, then, is a critical part of every new story. It shapes how the public thinks about the issue, whether they should care, and/or how they should act (e.g. as a citizen or a consumer).

For example, consider James Fallow’s observations in The Atlantic (“Framing a Story: Journalism 101.“). Fallow poses a question to readers to see if they can guess how a recent WSJ story was framed.

It begins this way:

“Americans are using more gadgets, televisions and air conditioners than ever before. But, oddly, their electricity use is barely growing, …”
Possible choices for the rest of the paragraph are:
(a) “… reflecting hard-won efficiencies in electric-power use by industries and utilities.”
(b) “… raising hopes that economic growth can coexist with reduced resource-use and greenhouse-gas emissions.”
(c) “… which together with increased shale-gas production may hasten the era of ‘energy independence’ for the United States.”
(d)”… posing a daunting challenge for the nation’s utilities.”

OK, you peeked, and know that the real answer is (d).

Fallow’s point is that this was a missed opportunity to frame the story in terms of environmental or energy security benefits for the country (which would have activated a civic identity). Instead, the journalist used an economic frame to focus attention on utility industry losses (which activated a consumer identity). Granted, the article appeared in a business section of the newspaper, so it is to be expected that an economic frame would be used. However, the journalist could have focused on national economic gains made from energy efficiency or other ways in which utilities economically benefit (e.g. not having to construct more power plants).

Journalists have a myriad of frames to choose from to tell their story. The frames they choose make all the difference in how information is understood.

Because journalists frame all the time, advocates need to be able to recognize those frames and respond appropriately to build public adoption for their issues. In our research, we rigorously test several frame elements (values and metaphors) with 1000s of Americans in interviews, surveys, and peer discourse sessions to determine which frames will (and will not) lead to support of social issues.

When we work with advocates in our workshops and Study Circles, we help them identify media frames and understand the framing effects in triggering either productive or unproductive ways of thinking about the issue. We also help them deploy tested reframes in their communications so that they can tell a new story in the media that gets the public to think like citizens again.

This is the essence of strategic framing – (1) identify the unproductive frames promoted in the media and public discourse, (2) understand the cognitive and cultural effects of those unproductive frames in public thinking on the issue, and (3) deftly use tested reframes to redirect public thinking on the issue.

When journalists are explicit about their framing choices, it is paramount for advocates to understand the value of empirically-tested framing recommendations. In a more value-laden media discourse, master framers know how to use every public communications opportunity skillfully to deploy frames that have been tested to gain public support.





Social Math for Climate Change: Young People Have Never Experienced a Colder than Average Month

With Hurricane Sandy slowing fading from the media’s limited attention span, it is time for advocates to “widen the lens” and tell a more persistent and compelling story about the effects of climate change. One way to do this is to use social math.

Grist.org has a great social math example  based on the latest weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The original data from NOAA states:

“The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature.”

To contextualize this data so that the public has a better idea of what this actually means, Grist writes:

“If you were born in or after April 1985, if you are right now 27 years old or younger, you have never lived through a month that was colder than average.”

Social math involves making numerical information more meaningful for the public. It is about making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts. Grist.org succeeds in communicating the temporal trends in warming by comparing this data to the age of a young adult.

Where the rest of the article falls short, however, is in using social math as part of a well-framed story. If you simply contextualize data without also integrating other framing elements, such as values, metaphors, and solutions, then it is likely that the public may feel apathetic or helpless in regards to what that data means for them. The rest of the article compares the effects of hurricanes to droughts and concludes by saying:

“There’s not much else to say. At this point, we’re just doctors taking a fading pulse. Or, I suppose, tracking a rising fever.”

Wow. Talk about depressing.

At FrameWorks, we are working with informal science educators at zoos and aquariums throughout the country to help them better communicate climate science through framing. When translating science data into social math, we recommend:

1- using values to help the public understand why this information is important,

2- making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts, and

2- enabling the public to understand the broader impact of the information and consider appropriate solutions.

So, while we do think using this example of comparing weather changes over time to the life span of a young person is good, we would propose that the rest of the story include:

1- tested values of responsible management (e.g. “We know we need to responsibly manage the hurricane and drought effects of climate change),

2- a tested metaphor of “heat-trapping blanket” to connect causes (fossil fuel consumption) to warming trends, and

3- linking the story to solutions that match the scale of the problem (clean technology, renewable energy, and energy conservation).

When joined with tested framing elements, social math has the power to connect meaningless data into meaningful impact. And, in this example that links time to effects, it has the power to turn an episodic story about one storm into a story that is about the long-term future of our society.