The latest issue of the journal Science includes a policy forum piece written by Sciencebloggers Chris Mooney (The Intersection) and Matt Nisbet (Framing Science). In the article, they argue that scientists do not, for the most part, use effective communications strategies when trying to defend science. Both Chris and Matt anticipate that this view is likely to be somewhat controversial, and that it is likely to spark a vigorous debate. I think that they are probably right about this, and not just because their article includes at least one paragraph that is likely to set PZ off faster than a lit match dropped into a five-gallon can of kerosene.
As Chris and Matt point out, we scientists tend to act under the assumption that the public will “get it” if we can just get them to understand the science. Larry Moran agrees with that perspective, and points out that people like Gould, Dawkins, and Sagan were pretty good at communicating science just that way. Larry does have a point there, but I think it misses the main point that Nisbet and Mooney were making: it’s also important to communicate concepts to people who don’t give a damn about the science. They also point out that the opponents of good science are very good at framing their views on stem cell research, the environment, teaching evolution, and other areas that fall at the intersection of science and politics.
I think Matt and Chris are right. We do need to spend more time (and thought) on communicating our views effectively, particularly to people who do not care about science.
Let’s face it. Blogging is fun, and I enjoy talking about science, especially when it’s relevant to public debates. That said, I have a pretty good idea of who reads these blogs. When it comes to controversial issues, we’re preaching to the choir. There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir – that’s how you get them to sing – but we can’t just preach to the choir.
Many – most – of the cases where science has gotten caught up in partisan political debates are issues that are important beyond the scientific community. These are issues where people – individual people – need to know that the issue is important, and that it is going to be important to them personally. This is hard, because as Nisbet and Mooney point out:
In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid. [citations omitted]
What’s a scientist to do?
Matt and Chris suggest that we use a technique that they call “framing.” This consists of emphasizing the parts of the message that relate to the things that the audience cares about. Larry says that “framing” looks a lot like “spin” to him, and I don’t think he’s wrong. On a visceral level, I don’t like the basic idea of framing. It just doesn’t feel right. Intellectually, though, I have to admit that it might be a necessary evil. The opponents of science are very, very good at framing issues their way, and the strategy has been working for them.
As much as I would like to live in a world where everyone was engaged, informed, and interested in public policy, I don’t. I want to get more people interested, and I want to see the soundbite culture replaced with substantive discourse. Right now, though, I don’t think we have the time. As long as the people we need to reach are uninterested in the science involved in the issue, we’re going to need to find other ways to get them interested in the issue itself. Framing the issue in a way that shows people why they should care is one way to do that, and I’m not sure that there is a better one.