Framing Science

A round up of recent news coverage where I have provided analysis…

1. USA Today ran this profile of actor Ed Begley, focusing on his commitment to environmental issues and a green lifestyle. Here’s what I said about the impact that citizens can have on their peers when they become advocates for a cause such as environmental conservation:

Early adopters of such practices “definitely make a difference,” says Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies public affairs.

“Citizens who eagerly adopt environmentally friendly behaviors are what marketers call ‘influentials.’ These are everyday opinion leaders who, through the visibility of their actions or by talking up their opinions and passing on recommendations about products, influence neighbors, co-workers and friends,” Nisbet says.

Although celebrity endorsements are a bit different in their impact than the influence of fellow neighbors and co-workers, the concept tracks closely the type of climate change opinion-leader campaigns that I have been writing about at this blog and elsewhere.

2. ClimateWire, a news syndication service that covers the environment and energy, ran a feature[password] analyzing American perceptions of climate change and the relationship to the policy debate. It’s one of the best discussions of public opinion I’ve seen in the press, with some interesting comments from various pollsters and experts.

Here’s what I had to say, an interpretation that will be familiar to readers of this blog or articles that I have written. See for example this recent study I did analyzing two decades of polling trends on global warming (PDF).

“The conventional wisdom is that media coverage and An Inconvenient Truth [former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary on global warming] changed public opinion,” said Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University. “Instead, most of the impact was to intensify things for those who already care about climate change.”

….Regardless of the source of the lackluster interest, many political scientists have indicated that the current apathy presents a problem for potential passage of climate legislation.

“Whenever you have systematic policy challenges that have a lot of costs, some in Congress need to see in polls that there is public support,” said Nisbet. “If I had to guess, I’d say maybe at the end of 2009 we’ll get something through.”

…To change that, supporters of controlling carbon dioxide emissions should consider reframing the issue around new green jobs and spiraling energy costs, which already rank as high priorities with Democrats and Republicans, American University professor Nisbet said.

McCain’s environmental adviser, James Woolsey, made a similar point recently when he said he had convinced a Republican congressman to support climate control measures after tying the topic to terrorism in a hearing. The congressman said, “If we’re doing it for that reason, then fine,” Woolsey recalled this month at an panel of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

One blogger has posted the full syndicated article here.

3. Finally, the June issue of The Scientist magazine profiles my colleague Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law at the University of Alberta and Director of the Health Law Institute. Caulfield is one of the leading scholars studying the intersection of policy, the media, and bioethics.

In recent projects, Caulfield has been analyzing news coverage of genetics, examining the tendency of the press to hype certain discoveries, or alternatively to report negatively on specific high-profile patent cases. Here’s what I had to say to The Scientist about Caulfield’s work:

“Tim [Caulfield] has done a very good job of bringing to bear the uncertainties of science,” says Matthew Nisbet at American University in Washington, DC. “He’s shown that the media doesn’t just reflect the policy debate; it actively shapes it.”

The June issue of The Scientist featuring the profile should be online later this week.