Presuppositions & Framing


Science Policy:
Paradigms, Systems, Ideology & Policy Making. 

Edited: 17/03/2024


Presuppositions are the inherent assumptions made within language that provide meaning when we communicate with one another (Bohm, 2013). This meaning can be perceived as a matter of fact, or true, subject to certain assumptions (Bohm, Kelly, & Morin, 1996). Presuppositions and underlying assumptions are not always true, and therefore can be used to frame a situation or problem (Oberholzer, 2013); for example to say “I do not exist” presupposes your existence (Briggs, 2016; Watts, 1972). When the presuppositions behind our understanding are changed new questions can be asked leading to a paradigm shift in understanding (Bohm, 2013). We aim here to explore this idea to provide more clarity on how the presuppositions that we believe are true may be subject to certain conditions and how framing behind this alters our world view and influence science and policy (Bohm, 1980).

A paradigm according to Kuhn (1970) is a universally accepted scientific achievement that provides a framework for problems and solutions to fellow scientists. This can be a conditional truth, a statement accepted as true due to certain presumptions taken as fact (Bohm et al., 1996; Briggs, 2016). Foucault’s used the term épistémè where it is defined as the prevailing order of knowledge during a historical period, which is similar to Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm (Taylor, 2010). Scientists can become entrenched in paradigms that define their own work (Saad, 2020). The scientist becomes a science advocate for their own work where theories are taken with certainty and not questioned (Pielke, 2007). Bohm (2013) states that dialogue is crucial to ask the right questions with scientific enquiry, yet every question contains implied presuppositions. Wrong or confusing presuppositions means the question will give no meaningful answer. The framing of science with an understanding of the presupposition is therefore fundamental to asking the right questions. Briggs (2016) discusses this in terms of conditioning propositions (or premises) which may or may not be true. From the mathematical, logical and philosophical perspective, propositions that are inductively true are referred to as axioms (Briggs, 2016). “Axioms are known to be true based on the evidence and faith that our intellects are correctly guiding us” (Briggs, 2016).

“Logic is the science or study of connections or relations between propositions, and to say an argument is true or false is to speak of the relation and not strictly of the propositions, thus when any proposition in an argument changes, the relation is liable to morph, too” (Briggs 2016).


The Framing of the Problem is the Real Problem

Presuppositions are inherent in framing. Lakoff (2010) states that many engaged in environmentalism have had the “old view” that “claimed that reason is conscious, unemotional, logical, abstract, universal, and imagined concepts and language as able to fit the world directly”, however, cognitive and brain sciences dismissed this (Lakoff, 2014). The root of many problems is, primarily, the lack of accountability for our own actions and how we perceive the world (Krishnamurti, 1985, 2010; Krishnamurti & Bohm, 2003; Pirsig, 1974).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate” (Chomsky, 2011).

Capra (1975) summarises rational knowledge as “a system of abstract concepts and symbols, characterized by the linear, sequential structure which is typical of our thinking and speaking.” (Capra 1975:27). Our abstract mind cannot completely understand reality (Capra, 1975), “there can be no conclusive experimental proof of the truth or falsity of a general hypothesis which aims to cover the whole of reality” (Bohm, 1980). Bohm (1980) stated “man is continually developing new forms of insight”, where older theories, that were taken as fact, are replaced with new when we gain insights into new areas of knowledge and understanding. This can occur when we reframe the current understanding of reality. Bohm (1980) discusses how our framing, or fragmented thoughts, on “what the world is” are given a disproportionate importance. This leads to confusion making it impossible to find a solution to individual and social problems.

We saw the urgent need to end this confusion, through giving careful attention to the one-ness of the content of thought and the actual process of thinking which produces this content (Bohm, 1980).

A frame considered from the social and cognitive perspective is an abstract model or mental construct, an approximation to reality, based on assumptions and presumptions to help the thinking process. In the cognitive and brain sciences, frames have been defined based on unconscious structures relating to “semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames” (Lakoff, 2010:3). In social and psychological sciences a frame is a set of conceptual and theoretical ideas or processes on how individuals, groups, and societies perceive and communicate in their environment (Chong & Druckman, 2007). Often we take these conceptual representation of reality, including scientific theories, as fact (Bohm, 2013; Capra, 1975). Lakoff, (2008, 2014) states that frames are taken as reality and even when a frame is negated it is activated. Hence the title of the book “Don’t think of an Elephant” ((Lakoff, 2008, 2014).

“The world we see is far more than those words, but it is organized through a representation in which those words have had a big effect. The way we talk about things and the way we think about things affect how we see them” (Bohm, 1992).

The language structure even contributes to this fragmentation, presuppositions tend to be hidden very deep in the structure of our thought (Bohm, 1980). Even the grammatical structure of the language “sustain and propagate” fragmentation. The subject-verb-object structure of sentences “implies that all action arises in a separate entity, the subject”. This is beyond the scope of this article and the author recommends reading Chapter 2 of ‘Wholeness and the Implicate Order’ (Bohm, 1980).

“In scientific inquiries a crucial step is to ask the right question. Indeed, each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit. If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, then the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning. One has thus to inquire into the appropriateness of the question. In fact, truly original discoveries in science and in other fields have generally involved such inquiry into old questions, leading to a perception of their inappropriateness, and in this way allowing for the putting forth of new questions. To do this is often very difficult, as these presuppositions tend to be hidden very deep in the structure of our thought” (Bohm, 1980).

Words have a relative meaning (Capra, 1975) through conceptual frames (Lakoff, 2014) or mathematical models. Verbal interpretations need to be understood but are imprecise (Capra, 1975). There is a lack of “shared meaning” which, according to Bohm (1985) is the biggest obstacle to progress and hinders the dissemination of information.

Unethical Behaviour

Dryzek et al., (2019) state that unethical behaviour by elites along with extreme and neurotic mass communication reinforce each other. Lakoff, (2010, 2014) stated that it is possible to reinforce either a negative or positive frame with language by the repetition of it; overtime it can become entrenched in the very synapses of people’s brains, becoming the norm (Lakoff, 2010). Chong & Druckman, (2007) refer to these as strong beliefs, but not always the truth. Frames are subjective, dependent upon the ideology and predispositions of the decision makers (Hall & Deardorff, 2006). Political ideologies are characterised by systems of frames or representational systems that consequentially activate the ideological system due to the links to partisanship and ideological language used (Hall & Deardorff, 2006; Skinner & Stephens, 2003). Chong & Druckman, (2007) discuss the “framing effect”, where a seemingly insignificant change in the presentation of an issue (including the language used) can have large effects on the political outcome. Reframing public discourse is thus possible and therefore a new paradigm can be produced. This can even reframe what is perceived as common sense (Lakoff, 2014).

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Policy adoption & framing

For policy adoption there is a reductive process and the implicit assumption that a particular policy is right (Lakoff, 2014) with the intention to create a single preferred choice of action (Pielke, 2007). Chong & Druckman (2007) discuss three levels to framing, (1) making new beliefs about an issue available, (2) making certain these beliefs are accessible, and (3) by making people’s evaluations of beliefs applicable or “strong”.

Strong frames can be created around presumptions, that may or may not be true (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009). They are not necessarily “intellectually or morally superior arguments”, can be exaggerations and complete lies, and play on “the fears and prejudices of the public” (Chong & Druckman, 2007:111) Frames can be used in manipulative or deceptive way to mislead the public, spin and propaganda are manipulative uses of framing. Spin can be used to make an embarrassing situation look normal. Propaganda aims to get the public to accept a false frame with the intention of maintaining or gaining more political control (Hood, 2011; Lakoff, 2014; Parenti, 1986; Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009).

As a propaganda system the mainstream media can limit the scope of acceptable opinion by continually reinforcing presuppositions and  thus giving the illusion of free thinking (Chomsky, 2011).

“Crowds, doubtless, are always unconscious, but this very unconsciousness is perhaps one of the secrets of their strength” (LeBon, 2009).

The wicked, or apparent wicked, problems we face today are complex and hard to resolve by policy makers, a simple ‘right’ answer may not provide clarity (Grint, 2005; Massey, 2022). Grint (2005) argue that collaboration is essential for progress to be made with a wicked problem; the framing is crucial as it determines the questions asked rather than providing right answers. Rosling (2019) discussed that there is a need for a more intelligent assessment process with complex systems. Similarly, Lakoff (2010) stated that the correct frames for understanding policy may need defining correctly. There is a need to move away from the linear cause and effect thinking to a more systemic approach in order to prevent unintended consequences that may not benefit a sustainable future (Schuster, 2018). Yet, the meaning of an abstract concept can be very different depending upon how it is represented. Concepts can be only partially correct or even illusory, reality is filtered by our perception, filtered by our framing and thus a cause of conflict due to the contradiction of ‘facts’ (Bohm, 1980). There is a systemic fault in the thinking process making collaboration difficult (Bohm, 1992) where those in control of the illusion can easily be the “master of the masses” (LeBon, 2009).

“We have this systemic fault; and you can see that this is what has been going on in all these problems of the world…” (Bohm, 1992).

Policy adoption is not always simple and is open to interpretation, politicians and policy makers need more than clear data (Bohm, 1992; Rosling, 2019). With the complex wicked (systemic) problems in political science the polarised framing currently used by policy makers may need to be radically reconsidered to prevent confusion, misperceptions, and unintended consequences. Many scholars have thus argued that systems should be considered rather than looking at simple cause and effect, or for someone to blame when things go wrong or looking for heroes when things go right (Rosling, 2019). Whereas Bohm (1980, 1992, 2013) suggests it is the thought process that is the source of the problems in the world.

“So it may be refined, modified, and even radically changed, through further observation, experiment and experience. But in order to be a ‘real fact’, it evidently has, in this way, to remain constantly valid, at least in certain contexts or over a certain period of time.” (Bohm, 1980)

Bohm (1992) argues that we have a “systemic fault” in the whole of thought. Contradiction and conflict can arise due to the different ways of framing reality (Bohm, 1980, 1992, 2013; “Glaucons Journal,” n.d.; Watts, 1951). A group (or community) may have shared abstract frames yet between groups there is contradiction and division due to the models being fixed, limited and often polarised (Bohm, 1992, 2003). Even though polarised framing may not give a complete picture of the whole problem it does create an easy-to-understand problem and captures an audience offering simple solutions and saliency required for policy change. Watts’ (1951) stated that religious symbols get confused with reality. When it is presumed that a scientific theory is a scientific fact, then it too can become a religion. Scott (1998) referred to this as a High-modernist Ideology in relation to the idealisation of the rational design of social order based on natural laws.

“Science has “destroyed” the religious symbol of the world because, when symbols are confused with reality, different ways of symbolizing reality will seem contradictory” (Watts 1951).


Abstract Systems

Although Bohm has discussed the lack of permanence in relationships, concepts, ideas and thoughts, such as mental constructs, or abstract systems. They are used to organise the world. Schuster, (2018) describes a system as a group of interconnected elements working together towards a common purpose or function, systems have specific characteristics and consistent patterns of activities. Systems thinking requires an understanding of these elements, the interconnections between them, and purpose or function of a system to fully understand the problem of a system. Simple linear cause and effect cannot solve perceived problems of complex systems, and this could create unintended consequences that are not always beneficial (“the map and the territory”). A system is thus a series of interconnecting processes, an area of control with specific conditions and norms in order to function; it is a group of interacting individual or groups of units (or subsystems) that can change by pressure from the external environment or other factors (or other systems) (Bohm, 1992). Framing in terms of systems and subsystems help simplify, organise and understand the world allowing scientists to identify autonomous processes and map interdependencies (Lakoff, 2010). Interdependencies can be abstract, social, psychological, economic, or physical (Schuster, 2018).

Frames are not absolute yet often, as stated, presumed as fact (Bohm, 1980, 1992; Chinnaiah, 2018; Chong & Druckman, 2007; Gregory, 2018; Grint, 2005; Lakoff, 2014; Papafragou, 2000; Rosling, 2019; Sang, 2009; Scott, 1998). When these belief systems become fixed and accepted without doubt this dogma can prevent healthy dialogue (Bohm, 1980). Dogma is defined as a polarised ideological belief system that is fixed and accepted without question, or as scott (1998) stated, a High-modernist ideology. From the perspective of Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, two mutual exclusive systems associated with top down institutional and bottom-up local-agent control (respectively), these need to work together to maintain balance for the whole system (Mumford, 1964). Dogma or ideology can create an imbalance.

“If we supposed that theories gave true knowledge, corresponding to ‘reality as it is’, then we would have to conclude that Newtonian theory was true until around 1900, after which it suddenly became false, while relativity and quantum theory suddenly became the truth. Such an absurd conclusion does not arise, however, if we say that all theories are insights, which are neither true nor false but, rather, clear in certain domains, and unclear when extended beyond these domains” (Bohm, 1980).

Systems framed around abstract models are subject to certain assumptions (Lakoff, 2010). For example, scientists often presume that nature is a mechanical system governed by mathematical laws (Hinz, 1991; Lakoff, 2014), yet all systems are relative to various purposes and how they are framed (Bohm et al., 1996). None of them show the complete reality and therefore they are not absolute (Bohm, 1992; Watts, 1951). They provide an approximation to reality, like the adage “a map is not the territory”, providing guidance as to the right path (Korzybski, 2004; Scott, 1998). The framing limits the facts and what is even perceived as common sense (Lakoff, 2014). The framing of systems is influenced by the personality, values, norms, ideology, presumptions, and preconceived ideas of the agent (Bohm, 2013; Bohm et al., 1996; Lakoff, 2014). This will be reflected in the interpretation of the system and potential solutions to the perceived problems.

Bohm (1992) states that we are identified with mental constructs or thought systems more than we are associated with what is truth. Watts (1952) stated that there is a perceived need to create security yet in doing so it can create the opposite effect. This can lead to conflict or the potential for it, thus destroying the security the mental constructs were supposed to safeguard (Bohm, 1992; Watts, 1951). A contemporary example of this is the creation of a sustainable world. Idealistic (reductive) concepts could be argued a necessary evil, however, they create a divide and create conflicts, we are unable to move towards a more holistic truth (Bohm, 1980, 1985, 2013).

“Now you see, if we say there are two nations, that’s the same kind of problem. You see, the people in the two absolutely different. One says, ‘Deutschland aber Alles’, nations may not be very different, like France and the other says, ‘Vive la France’, and then they say, Germany, right? Nevertheless they insist they are ‘We must establish rigid boundaries; we must set up tremendous big fences across these boundaries; we must destroy anything to protect them; and you had the First World War” (Bohm, 1985).

Bohm (1985) discusses the idea of one world, this is acknowledged by the “Think-global, act local” concept embraced by many governments, organisations, politicians, and NGOs.


The Implications of Framing for Science and Science Policy Research

Information has to make sense to the public in terms of their system of frames, otherwise it is ignored (Lakoff, 2010). Framing cannot be avoided; politicians and political journalists frame situations using their prejudiced agenda. Framing uses language (and often subliminal messages and presumptions) to structure the situation to their cause (Bohm, 2013; Capra, 1975; McNair, 2004; Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009). The ‘dishonest science’ becomes another divide leading to more conflict (Bhattacherjee, 2012; Whitehead, 2014). The politicisation of science is vulnerable to framing (Parenti, 2001) and this has enormous implications to the impartiality of science and science policy research (Pielke, 2007).

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion” (Pirsig, 1974).


For the academic community some ideological framing could prevent healthy scepticism and discourse in science and promotes division between those who perceive an abstract model as true or false (Bohm, 1992). Even if most scientists are aiming for the same holistic outcome of ‘a better world’, the polarised framing leads to a perceived truth where the dogma associated with it encourages division and conflict (Bohm, 1980, 1992, 2013; Watts, 1951).

“…if somebody doesn’t listen to your basic assumptions you feel it as an act of violence, and then you are inclined to be violent yourself” (Bohm, 2013).

It is the scientific process that can provide the path to truth (Bohm, 2013; Pielke, 2007; Popper, 1966; Russell, 2009; Saad, 2020; Watts, 1951). Scientist must remain impartial and provide a range of possible outcomes and resolving scientific debates will resolve political debates (Pielke, 2007). By removing value judgements science can be a tool for impartially providing certain options, (Pielke, 2007). Policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders must work together constructively to overcome these challenges, promote innovative solutions, and ensure that green intentions are effectively translated into actions that support equitable, just, and sustainable futures.

“The unfairness of which I complain is that you do not distinguish between mere disputation and dialectic: the disputer may trip up his opponent as often as he likes, and make fun; but the dialectician will be in earnest, and only correct his adversary when necessary …. I would recommend you, therefore … not to encourage yourself in this polemical and controversial temper, but to find out, in a friendly and congenial spirit…” From Plato, Theaetetus 167e–168b Jowett translation, quoted in (Agassi, 2016).



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