Framing Science

One of the reasons why Al Gore’s communication campaign has had limited success in activating the American public on climate change is that only half of adults have a favorable opinion of the former Vice President. Not only do pre-conceived notions about Gore serve as a perceptual screen in interpreting his climate crisis message, such hardened opinions don’t augur well for the many of us who have been hoping that Gore would run for president. Indeed, as a recent Gallup analysis reviews, polls from Marist and Pew indicate that half of Americans would never consider voting for Gore as president. This data was collected before the Nobel prize announcement, but it would be overly optimistic to believe that the event will shift public perspectives that have been relatively stable for most of this decade.


  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    October 13, 2007

    Hey, Al’s taking heat that would otherwise go to people less prepared.

    Imagine what they’d have done to this kid if Al’s Nobel Prize _hadn’t_ distracted the media last week, eh?:

  2. #2 Vicki Stein
    October 13, 2007

    What a bunch of B.S. Those stats have changed quite a bit since then – in favor of Gore.

    The smear job that the so called “Liberal” media did on Gore was one of the worst hatchet jobs in the history of this country.

    I bet if he decides to run for President, he’d win. Democrats like him, for one thing, and there are more Dems than there are Republicans. Hell, he won the first time.

  3. #3 Mark P
    October 13, 2007

    It should come as no surprise that some people do not like Al Gore. An elderly woman I know said she did not like him. I asked why. She said she didn’t know. I said, “It’s because he’s a Democrat.” Although she denied it, that was the reason, and that’s the reason for Gore’s unfavorable rating in the US. This demonstrates nothing about framing, as some would have it, but a lot about the fact that the AGW issue is political for Republicans, not a matter of science, and not a matter of framing.

  4. #4 John Morgan
    October 14, 2007

    The problem is those guys with a lot of power and too much money. Guys like this one:
    Even a Nobel prize laureated cannot do much against them.

  5. #5 Leni
    October 14, 2007

    I have this sneaking suspicion that the only way Gore is going to get Republicans to like him is to frame himself as a) a Republican or b) a Democrat willing to blame everything on The Gays.

    I’m thinking the only way Gore’s going to get that support is if he says that global warming is really caused by gay men who want straight men all hot and sweaty all the time because they think it’s sexy. Or perhaps that global warming makes you gay. Probably we’d have viable fusion factories and no-emission cars that run on dirt withing a decade.

    I’m only half joking. I don’t think the problem here is Gore’s presentation of himself. It’s that he isn’t republican and republicans know that.

  6. #6 Caledonian
    October 14, 2007

    This just in:

    Only 50% of ScinceBloggers have an unfavorable view of Matthew C. Nisbet.

    The other half were unaware of his existence.

  7. #7 Daryl McCullough
    October 14, 2007


    Before trying to figure out what it means that only 50% of the American public approve of Al Gore, I’d like to see some examples of famous people who do much better than 50%. Are there any politicians who do better? Is it possible that in today’s world, a plurality is the best anyone can do?

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    October 14, 2007

    The focus is not on how Gore can boost his favorable rating, but rather that if nearly half the public have a negative view of Gore, nearly half the country is going to tune out his message about climate change. Definitely not how it should be nor Gore’s fault, but a reality of how Gore’s message has likely been selectively interpreted.

  9. #9 Daryl McCullough
    October 14, 2007


    Yes, but my point is that perhaps we should stop expecting that a clear majority will agree on anything at all.

  10. #10 matthew
    October 14, 2007

    Of course one of the ways in which Gore has tried to get around this partisan issue is by training other people to give his presentation. I haven’t heard that brought up yet.

  11. #11 lylebot
    October 14, 2007

    if nearly half the public have a negative view of Gore, nearly half the country is going to tune out his message about climate change

    In other words, the “frame” doesn’t even matter.

  12. #12 Leni
    October 14, 2007

    Nisbet wrote

    Definitely not how it should be nor Gore’s fault, but a reality of how Gore’s message has likely been selectively interpreted.

    You have a post asking if Gore contributes to the crisis, and then suggesting that he give the money to non-partisan recipients lest he further frame himself into a democratic corner.

    Given that, this remark seems disingenuous.

  13. #13 Eli Rabett
    October 15, 2007

    Why does the expression crabs in a jar occur to me. Right now Gore IS controlling the frame. Steve Clemons at TPM pretty much has it right.

    “Gore’s win seals the deal that he owns the global climate change franchise. Everyone big in this game — from firms, to NGOs, to governments — will need the Al Gore seal of approval on whether some initiatives are good or bad. That’s going to be interesting. Al Gore is going to be an NGO of his very own, and he’s probably going to have to get a sticker machine so that stuff he likes can bear his seal of approval.

    But there is a bigger, more complicated and admittedly cynical dimension to the Gore win.

    It keeps climate change policy from being something that anyone else can take a lot of credit for, particularly the Clintons — unless they can work out a deal.”

  14. #14 Caledonian
    October 15, 2007

    I would be very interested in seeing what percentage of the American public approves of most politicians and political policies.

    My impression is that 50% is wildly successful.

  15. #15 Matt Penfold
    October 15, 2007

    There are some 6 billion people living on this planet, and global warming is going to affect every single one of them.

    I have not seen Nisbett offer any data to support his contention that Gore is not doing a good job at “framing” the global warming issue other than data for the US. Since the poplulation of the US is a small subset of the world population I am not sure the data can be used to extrapolate the global population’s view on global warming. Until Nisbett is able to produce such data he would seem to be arguing from a highly parochial viewpoint. Since this is not the first time he has made this mistake I am beginning to suspect he does not understand that the US is not same thing as the World. That or he has some xenophobic tendancies.

  16. #16 Matthew C. Nisbet
    October 15, 2007

    Matt Penfold:

    My focus is on Gore’s impact in the US, hence my focus on US public opinion data. His differential impact across other countries and political systems is an interesting and important question but not something I am studying right now. I invite you or others to analyze polling and media data in other countries as a comparison point to my analysis of the US context. I also invite others to similarly examine data from the US as a comparison point to my own work.

  17. #17 Inoculated Mind
    October 15, 2007

    From what I’ve seen and heard from Al Gore, he has been doing both: informal education & framing. Informal education, by giving people evidence and information about the problem, and framing it in terms of Opportunity, and hasn’t gotten too Apocalyptic. Indeed it seems to me that his emphasis is on opportunity. Perhaps he could play that up..?

    It appears that in this situation you’re saying that Gore’s ability to communicate is not dependent so much on his ability to frame the issue so much as his ability to overcome the prejudices people hold against him. My question is, who’s in a better position to change people’s minds right now? And how do we “frame” Al Gore so that his message is received more broadly?

    I don’t think he should run for president at all – we need his focus on the public discussion of global warming.

    I agree with the Steve Clemons quote above – Gore owns the public discussion.

  18. #18 Anonymous
    October 15, 2007

    Matt Nisbett,

    If you wish only to look at how science communication happens in the US that is of course up to you. However I am sure you will understand if those of us who not Americans do not consider your contributions at all relevant. However there is one way you could make a useful contribution to addressing non-Americans and that is working out the best “frame” for the US to apologise to the rest of world for failing to ratify Kyoto and the attempts to undermine scientific consensus on the issue. Such an apology is after all long overdue and and the attitude of the US a serious threat to global security.

    I would also ask that you start using disclaimers when taking a position that only supported by US data. Something along the lines of having a statement that the following is based only on data pertaining to the US and as such has no bearing to most people.

  19. #19 Inoculated Mind
    October 15, 2007

    Um, Anonymous,

    The title of the post said Americans. Was clear to me.

  20. #20 Coin
    October 15, 2007

    Mr. Nisbet:

    Okay. So what are you suggesting should be done about it? Is there some other potential messenger who could be promoted on global warming issues who would be likely to reach that 42% of the public who doesn’t like Al Gore?

  21. #21 slgalt
    October 15, 2007

    You have fallen for a framing trap. What if Americans were asked what their opinion on Gore was regarding his work for the environment? By falling for a political frame to begin with, you already get a wrong answer.

    Many would happily accept the messenger on this topic even if they didn’t like him politically.

  22. #22 Coin
    October 15, 2007

    Many would happily accept the messenger on this topic even if they didn’t like him politically.

    I also think many people would happily reject a messenger they’d otherwise be prone to like, if that messenger adopted the “wrong” position.

    What if Americans who disapprove of Al Gore were asked what they didn’t like about him? How many, at this point, would primarily identify their dislike for him as being because of his hated advocacy on behalf of the Great Global Warming Swindle?

    Your implicit idea here is that Gore has negative associations with some people because of his political work, and these associations are impacting the efficacy of his environmental work. But if some messenger with right-wing credibility stepped forward (although the Right is in such turmoil today that I’m not sure anyone with that status actually exists unless they actually work for Fox News?) and made the same movie Gore made and started basing their career around pushing the message Gore is pushing, isn’t it possible they would instantly transform into a hated Liberal and gain an approval/disapproval polarity that looks a lot like Al Gore’s?

    In short, how can you be sure that dislike of Gore as a person/politician translates into antipathy for his environmental advocacy, and not the other way around?

    I mean, it’s surely probable that there exists some set of people who are “tuning out” Gore’s environmental message because they just don’t like the guy. Hence my question from the other post– if it’s true, what do we do about it? How do we turn awareness of this “reality of how Gore’s message has likely been selectively interpreted” into something useful?

    But this said, I don’t think you’ve really done anything to demonstrate that “reality”. You’ve got four graphs; three are on Gore’s presidential chances, which is a subject not really related to whether he’s a good science communicator (there are lots of people I take seriously as a commentator on some subject, but wouldn’t vote for for president), and the fourth I don’t think you’re interpreting in a reasonable way. You take a graph that inexplicably stops in mid-August, and concentrate on one single number from it– the 50% approval rating. Why concentrate on how low the 50% approval is? Why not concentrate on how low the 42% disapproval is, or how high the 8% “no opinion” is?

    — — — —

    In fact the most interesting thing of all to me about that first graph, the Gore approval graph, is something you didn’t comment on at all– that Gore’s 50% approval is a minimum, so to speak, for the time period you gave us. Meanwhile, the maximums and minimums don’t seem to be random: The first of his two approval peaks, in early March, was right after Oscar night, and the second (larger) peak was in May, when his book came out. Both of those peaks were on top of the same 8-10% “no opinion” block we see at the end of the graph, and when those peaks were hit Gore’s disapproval got so low that at those points it’s closely comparable to W. Bush’s approval rating (the closeness of these numbers is probably not a coincidence).

    It’s really hard to interpret opinion polls and I’m not trained in it, but one possible interpretation here seems to me to be that there’s a 7-10% “swing” of people that don’t like Gore very much in general, but like his pro-reason, pro-environmental message– he goes up in the polls with these people when they’re actively being reminded of his environmental crusading, and falls in the polls in periods when they aren’t being actively reminded as such things. (He’ll probably get boosted up in the polls again as the Nobels refresh “Inconvenient Truth” in people’s minds, and, well, also because he just won a Nobel Prize.) One might even go so far as to say your graphs say very good things about Gore’s communication campaign– because there’s somewhere around 10% of the population who wouldn’t vote for Al Gore for president (remember, that 53% “definitely wouldn’t consider voting for him” number comes from the month Gore hit his popularity peak), but appear willing to listen to him on climate change. If this means that Gore is making inroads into the polarized “red state” half of the country who voted for Bush in 2000, then this is exactly the trick we want science communicators right now to pull off.

  23. #23 Matt Penfold
    October 16, 2007

    “The title of the post said Americans. Was clear to me.”

    This post is better labeled than most of Nisbett’s. However the post before this one is titled “Does Gore Contribute to the Communication Crisis” with no qualification at all. Thus when Nisbett produced only data for the US it was quite fair for people to call him on it. Nisbett by his own admission cannot answer the question for the simple reason that for most people he has no data. This is not the first time he has done this. Have a look back to his criticism of Dawkins for other examples.

    I think on a global scale, which is how the question was framed, the answer is clear. Gore does not contribute to the communication crisis. The answer is so simple it amazes me Nisbett has such trouble answering it.

  24. #24 Matthew C. Nisbet
    October 16, 2007

    Matt Penfold,
    From the beginning, I have always said my interest is in looking at the US setting. Other countries and political systems are important, but this blog and my research primarily focus on science and political communication in the US context, hence 90% of my readers are from the US. I invite you to do research on other political contexts as a comparison point and to start your own blog tracking public opinion in other countries. I can also point you in the direction of good polling data on Europe, for example check out the science and technology modules of the Eurobarometer. Moreover, if you read The Scientist article that just came out, we offer research comparisons on the issues of plant biotech and nanotech between the US and Europe.


  25. #25 NL
    October 17, 2007

    Mr. Nisbet:

    1. Gore’s favorables post-Nobel: 58% favorable, 37% unfavorable. Link:

    2. Latest CNN poll mathcups gave: Gore (52%)-Giuliani (46%) (Hillary Clinton (49%)-Giuliani (47%)). Gore is polling better than HRC. Link:

    If you’re able to update your post with this important information, it would be much appreciated and helpful for the readers in my opinion. Thank you in advance.

  26. #26 Matthew C. Nisbet
    October 17, 2007

    Saw that and plan to blog it when I get a chance. Basically shows that Gore got a “convention-like bounce” out of the Nobel prize elevating him to the upper range of his approval rating, similar to earlier this year when his book came out and then in 2006 with the release of his movie. If history is a predictor, absent no new focusing event, next month his approval rating will normalize to around 50%.


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