My SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have created quite a stir recently, first with this article in Science and later with this article for the Washington Post. The basic premise is that scientists need to become more effective communicators, especially on controversial issues like evolution and global warming. In particular, they need to “frame” scientific issues in a way that will have resonance with specific groups of people. In some cases this might mean eschewing a discussion of the scientific minutiae in favor of discussing more practical ramifications of the issue at hand.
This all blew up while I was in the middle of preparing my big talk for the Roanoke math conference. Consequently, I did not comment at that time. In the interim, rather a lot of bloggers weighed in on the subject, and Nisbet and Mooney offered numerous replies. So I am arriving late to the party. I have only read a small fraction of what my fellow bloggers have written on the subject, so I apologize in advance for the inevitable overlap between what I am about to say, and what others have already said.
For those who do not wish to read a long blog entry, here’s the short version: I think the argument made by Mooney and Nisbet suffers from one fatal flaw, and several other lesser flaws. Overall, I find far more wrong with their argument than I find right with it.
We begin with an excerpt from the Science article:
Issues at the intersection of science and politics, such as climate change, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research, receive considerable public attention, which is likely to grow, especially in the United States as the 2008 presidential election heats up. Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message (1). However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside.
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 (2). Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid (3).
Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done (4, 5).
The two main examples used by Mooney and Nisbet are evolution and global warming. They point out that in both cases there is a clear scientific consensus on the basic facts of the issue, but that this consensus is not reflected in public opinion polls. In the Science article they write the following about evolution:
As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over “intelligent design” was launched, antievolutionists promoted “scientific uncertainty” and &lduqo;teach-the-controversy” frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of “public accountability” that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, “economic development” that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and “social progress” that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.
They go on to give some brief examples of how scientists might communicate more effectively, all of them based on downplaying the actual science and playing up more practical considerations instead.
And that brings us to the fatal flaw in their argument: They seem to think the public’s reluctance to accept the reality of global warming or the correctness of evolutionary theory is the result of poor marketing from the science side vs. good marketing from the anti-science side. In making this argument they overlook something fundamental. Specifically, that in both of those cases it is the anti-science side that has the more attractive message to offer.
On global warming the pro-science side has the message that our current way of life is unsustainable, that major changes in the ways we obtain energy are necessary, and that if we do not make these difficult changes we risk some serious climatic catastrophes. The anti-science side gets to tell people they don’t have to change a thing, that they can continue driving their ridiculously oversized vehicles, and that it’s only a handful of chicken littles who think otherwise.
On evolution the pro-science side has the message that we are just an animal like any other and that our existence is the chance outcome of four billion years of bloodsport. The anti-science side gets to assure everyone that there is a God who loves them, that the world was created for humans specifically, and that there is more to life than science alone.
In both cases the anti-science side has a message people want to buy, while the pro-science side has a message most people find rather gloomy. All the slick marketing and clever framing in the world will not change that simple fact.
And it’s not as if people are perceiving things inaccurately. Evolution genuinely does pose a grave and serious challenge to traditional religious beliefs. Few people really need Richard Dawkins to point that out to them. And doing anything substantive about global warming really would require people to make some inconvenient changes in their lives.
This point is reinforced by the one example given by Mooney and Nisbet to illustrate the success of their general method: embryonic stem-cell research. From the Science article:
On the embryonic stem cell issue, by comparison, patient advocates have delivered a focused message to the public, using “social progress” and “economic competitiveness” frames to argue that the research offers hope for millions of Americans. These messages have helped to drive up public support for funding between 2001 and 2005 (9, 10). However, opponents of increased government funding continue to frame the debate around the moral implications of research, arguing that scientists are “playing God&rduqo; and destroying human life. Ideology and religion can screen out even dominant positive narratives about science, and reaching some segments of the public will remain a challenge (11).
But the relative success on this issue is not the result of clever framing. Rather, it comes from the fact that on this issue it is the pro-science side that has the more attractive message to sell. Pro-science forces get to talk about potential cures, the advancement of knowledge, and giving hope to people with dread diseases. The anti-science forces are stuck trying to convince people that a two-week old embryo is the moral equivalent of a human being. Once again, it is the pleasantness of the message, not the slickness of the marketing, that is relevant.
That’s the fatal flaw in the argument. The problem isn’t ineffective framing, it’s having a message most people find unappealing. But there are other problems as well.
If the issue is getting away from the actual scientific facts in favor of more touchy-feely approaches, then it is not clear why scientists are on the receiving end of the Mooney/Nisbet thesis. After all, the scientist’s expertise is in assimilating large quantities of data, thinking clearly about complex issues, and being able to explain it to anyone who is interested. But according to Mooney and Nisbet, “data dumps” are precisely what should be avoided. If that is the case, then why are they talking to scientists about this at all?
This becomes clear from the examples they provide in the Washington Post article:
So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that’s already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.
It’s nice that some in the evangelical community have found a message that resonates with their flock, and that business leaders see some economic opportunities in global warming legislation. What has that to do with scientists? Mooney and Nisbet are even telling scientists to change their messengers. I’m all in favor of enlisting nonscientists in the fight for better public awareness on scientific issues. But are scientists themselves expected to approach evangelical Christians and talk to them in religious terms? Are we expected to formulate business models for how people can make money off of global warming?
The fact is that scientists are especially ill-suited for the kind of work Mooney and Nisbet say needs to be done. Framing is all about condensing difficult issues into simple buzzwords and catchphrases meant to appeal to people’s emotions more than their intellect. Real science is all about subtlety and nuance and fine distinctions. People who are good at one tend not to be good at the other.
Allow me to close with an anecdote. When my brother and I were little, we used to joke that it was impossible to get a simple answer out of our father, a chemical engineer, about anything. We would ask him what we thought were simple questions requiring one sentence answers, and suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end of a fifteen minute lecture. Now I find myself doing the same thing. I routinely have students come to my office hours with what I’m sure they think are simple questions, only to find, twenty minutes later, that they’re still uncertain as to the answer. I try very hard to write short, concise blog entries, but rarely succeed.
And so it is with science popularization. If you need someone to lay out the facts, go to a scientist. If you need someone to boil everything down to a simple take-home message people will respond to, hire a marketing firm.