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Beware the Hungry Frame

Public experts often take apart and examine other people’s frames, from a scientific or other research-based perspective. But as with paintings, the easiest way to ruin a good argument is to stick it inside a bad frame yourself.

Glaring example: This opinion piece in the Guardian last week by Eric Topol, the director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, whom I’ve lauded before for his COVID-centered Substack and tireless Twitter coverage of the latest COVID research and public health policy.

In the Guardian piece, Topol is warning that various US government bodies are pulling back their investments in vaccine outreach just when a second Omicron wave is poised to swamp the country. He has, as they say, an argument. But there’s something immediately wrong-footed about the way it lands in the Guardian, right from the headline: ”Once again, America is in denial about signs of a fresh Covid wave.” The problem, Topol keeps repeating, isn’t so much policy as it is first an American character flaw. Which, not coincidentally, sounds just like something the Guardian would jump at running.

Yes, the US federal government seems to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity over managing COVID. But many European countries pulled their social distancing and masking mandates months ago despite the first Omicron wave. And those Asia-Pacific countries that pursued zero-COVID strategies against earlier COVID variants have found those strategies backfiring against the more contagious Omicron variants. So while the United States continues to make mistakes, is the country uniquely “in denial”? Making that case would seem hard work — so much easier to simply to declare it, land your pitch with the Guardian and get lots of approving retweets from the like-minded. But who in a position to remake US policy will find a frame of “nation once again denial” at all useful (much less accurate)?

Here’s a more complicated example: Scott Alexander writes about the current ubiquity of “justice” (e.g., in such forms as climate justice, social justice, intergenerational justice, evenspatial justice) and concludes that “justice is eating the world.” While “justice is a useful lens that I’m not at all trying to get rid of,” he says, “when it starts annexing all the other virtues, until it’s hard to think of them except as species of Justice, I do think that’s potentially a sign of a sick society.”

That’s an assertion to make a lot of people see red, but Alexander’s core argument isn’t the usual anti-woke screed. Instead, he posits that a justice frame impoverishes how we think about social progress and the roles we can play in it:

A narrative of helpers and saviors allows saints. It allows people who are genuinely good, above and beyond expectations, who rightly serve as ideals and role models for others. A narrative of justice allows, at best, non-criminals – people who haven’t broken any of the rules yet, who don’t suck quite as much as everyone else. You either stand condemned, or you’re okay so far. If it has any real role models, it’s the cop who wins Officer Of The Year, the guy who’s more sensitive to violations and more efficient in punishment than anyone else. Turn this guy into your moral model, and you’ve got, well, the planet of cops.

You might deeply disagree with Alexander; you might say, for instance, that a justice framing of climate issues can help reveal whom climate change hurts and will hurt the most as well as the disparities between those billions and the rest of us. But I don’t think Alexander is asking us to discard a justice framing, but to be aware justice (like all frames) has tradeoffs. Every frame serves to focus us — and does so at least in some part through exclusion. Thinking our frames can eat the world without penalty makes the arguments inside those frames much more vulnerable.

I’ve argued many times before that you as public expert need an editor that you consider (or at least give license to act as) peers — an editor who is at least in part an outsider to your domains of expertise. This role doesn’t have to be played by an actual editor, although editors do trade in narrative; a colleague or colleagues with a foot in your discipline could serve the same purpose. But that purpose here — calling bullshit when necessary on the frame in which you’ve hung an argument — is one of the most important if you want that argument to resonate beyond the converted.