Matt “Framing Science” Nisbet has some more advice for scientists on things we shouldn’t be saying:
Another frame to avoid is the same type of “war on science” and “restoring science to its rightful place” rhetoric that was used on the campaign trail and in the early days of Obama’s administration.
While during the Bush era this public accountability frame justifiably mobilized liberals and many scientists, now that Obama is in office the same message likely alienates Republican segments of the public that the president desperately needs to rally around climate action. The frame provides the heuristic that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans and focuses on conflict rather than consensus.
Let’s think about this one for a minute or two. In fact, let’s try something radical: let’s assume for a minute that Nisbet’s actually right. We’ll ignore his use of the phrase “likely alienates Republican[s]” and assume that he’s got solid data that says that Republicans are definitely alienated by recent uses of “war on science” and “rightful place” in public discussions.
If that’s actually true, then I might have messed up yesterday when I (twice) discussed Bobby Jindal’s speech. I might not have directly accused Jindal of engaging in anti-science behavior, but I definitely implied it. (I hope I did, anyway, because I was sure as hell trying to.) If I shouldn’t have taken that approach, what should I have done?
Seriously. We’ve already seen that Republican complaints about various parts of the stimulus were, when not actively countered, very effective at getting some projects that would have created real jobs dropped from the stimulus. Jindal might have been complaining about a done deal, but it’s not like volcano monitoring only gets funded once. In fact, if you look far enough down in the federal budget that President Obama’s going to be submitting to Congress in the next few days, you’re going to find more money for the program’s ongoing expenses.
Volcano monitoring is a cheap, simple, and effective program that has saved lives and property in the past, and will save lives and property in the future. A politician – even one from a state without volcanoes – who gets up on the national stage and mocks funding for such programs demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science can appropriately inform public policy questions.
So does a politician who mocks fruit fly research being undertaken to determine how to best deal with an agricultural pest that’s causing damage in the United States.
And the politician who makes a funny, funny joke about bear DNA studies that will be used to determine if grizzlies still need endangered species protections.
The rightful place of science in public policy debates includes using science to minimize the risks that people face, or to provide the data needed to make informed policy decisions on complex issues. These politicians see science as an easy target to mock for cheap political points.
Oops. Shouldn’t have said that.
I just singled out three Republicans. That’s bad. Nisbet thinks I’m sending the message that Republicans are anti-science, which might disturb the delicate sensibilities of Republicans and alienate them. That probably means I shouldn’t have gone after Vitter either. Because, after all, if would be bad if I sent the message that science is a partisan issue.
Apparently, the fact that the hard-core conservative base are the only ones who left don’t believe in climate change doesn’t send a message that this is a partisan issue. That message doesn’t get sent until we respond to them.
I’m (almost) at a loss for words here.
It’s not like I we only go after Republicans who are engaging in anti-science behavior. (Remember when RFK, Jr.’s name was out there as a potential EPA administrator?) It’s not even like we’re digging for opportunities to criticize Republicans – all of the examples I just cited came from highly publicized public remarks. The Republicans are getting criticized more, because they’re doing it more publicly, more vocally, more egregiously, and more often.
I suppose we could just ignore it. But there’s something that I’d like to suggest to the communications expert:
Ignoring blatantly anti-science remarks – even if we’re just ignoring them because we’re afraid of alienating allies of the people making them – sends its own message. It says that these are unimportant issues. That they’re issues that we don’t really care about. It says that the misrepresentation of science in public policy debates is something that we can live with. It says we’re fine with it.
That’s not a message I’m willing to send. I’m not fine with it.