Fergus Brown asks, in a comment to “frames and frames”:
This idea [writing to your audience] might work well enough when you are considering the context of a speech or presentation, but how does it map into the blogosphere? Who is our audience here? Do we define them by our position, or do they define our position by their response? In other words, how does the idea of a frame work when the sudience is (in principle) arbitrary?
This is a timely question considering my disappointment with Coturnix’s essay; see “More on the framing frame” (OK, OK, I’ve used that too “frame” frame too much…) and comments thereto.
I think what I am realizing is that the advice “frame for your audience” has to be tempered. You also have to frame for whomever else might wander by.
If we are trying to attain trust by projecting authority, we must minimize the number of people we irritate and confront. Of course if you irritate nobody ever, you achieve nothing. (It used to be you could sell a lot of colorful and vapid magazines, but I think those days are drawing to a close. There: I irritated magazine writers.)
So while I agree with N&M, I also need to say something that must be obvious to journalists but seems far from obvious to scientists. In a public communication, you have two framing tasks.
In the past, this didn’t apply to scientific papers. Dr. X. might “disagree with the IPCC’s assessment in Section 126.96.36.199” and not worry about it. Now Dr X needs to recast his statement lest his statement be turned into “Dr X disagrees with IPCC” and “Dr X disagrees with so-called climate consensus” and “Dr X is among the many scientists who think this product of the UN bureaucracy is unjustifiable” (and this is even before it crosses into outright misstatement.)
In the present environment, everything you say in public can come to the attention of anyone.
The overall effectiveness of the communication is not dominated by its evidence or logic, but by how effectively we build and maintain social networks of trust. This is much harder because people are deliberately trying to break that trust. This makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention to the whole thing.
In summary, what I am coming to is:
- Identify and address your primary audience. Serve their needs.
- Think about who else might be most negatively affected if they see it, treat them as a secondary audience, and if possible do what you can to soften the blow and avoid making enemies unnecessarily
- When you are done think about whether what you say will do more harm then good. Once in a while be willing to throw the whole thing away. Substitute some dry lecture on Clausius-Clapeyron and be done with it.
This is no different for the web than it was in the days of paper. If anything, while it’s easier to get published, it’s also easier than ever for your words to reach someone they might offend. The intrinsic formalism of public communication exists for a reason.
In the end we are all in the same boat.