Framing Science

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ClimateGate: A now ubiquitous tagline that conveys a preferred storyline.

In a paper published earlier this year at the journal Environment, I explained how claims and arguments relative to the climate change debate can be classified and tracked using a typology of frames that are common to science-related issues.

With the recent controversy over the East Anglia stolen emails, one of these common frames has come to dominate discussion leading up to Copenhagen. What’s different this time around is that climate skeptics and conservatives are applying the frame, rather than liberals and environmental advocates.

This specific frame defines a science debate narrowly in terms of “public accountability and governance”:

Is research or relevant policy in the public interest or serving special interests? The emphasis is on matters of control, transparency, participation, responsiveness, or ownership; or debate over proper use of science and expertise in decision-making (“politicization.”)

In the Environment paper, I described how historically the public accountability frame has been used by Democrats, environmentalists, and science advocates in an attempt to raise concern that conservatives, industry, and the Bush administration were ignoring scientific expertise in favor of economic interests and/or ideology. Common frame devices used to instantly evoke and lock in this interpretation were allegations over a “war on science” and the “manufacture of uncertainty.” As I wrote in the paper, while this frame might mobilize a liberal base it also likely inadvertently leads to further disengagement among the broader public, who are likely to see claims about a “war on science” as just more elite, partisan bickering.

The irony now is that conservatives and climate skeptics have discovered the utility of the public accountability frame to inflame and mobilize their base while also (intentionally) deactivating concern about climate change among the broader public.

The now commonly used term “ClimateGate” to refer to the case of the East Anglia stolen emails is an extremely effective frame device that instantly–if not falsely–conveys that there is wrongdoing, politicization, and a cover-up on the part of mainstream scientists.

Focusing events have the potential to powerfully amplify the resonance of a frame pushed by advocates. If the focusing event imbues a preferred storyline with even a tiny bit of validity, it can catapult a much stronger and broader frame into dominance. The case of the East Anglia emails, now defined in conversation as “ClimateGate,” threatens to follow this trend. We will have to watch closely to see if the storyline cast by conservative skeptics and media becomes one of the classic examples of frame resonance in politics.

For a relevant case study on how an event can launch a politically preferred frame of reference into prominence, see this post from 2005 where I detailed how Hurricane Katrina fueled a larger narrative about the the Bush administration as a presidency in a “state of denial.”

I will be discussing more on this issue at the workshop on climate change communication held Sunday at the annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. More than 115 attendees have registered and there will be ample time allotted for questions and comments with the panelists.

Comments

  1. #1 Thomas
    December 7, 2009

    Remind people what Watergate was all about: attempted theft of documents to possibly find dirt to smear an opponent. This affair is similar so it would be reasonable to take the same view of who is the culprit.

    It is sad that nowadays the most important asset for someone in climate science may be public relations and how to deal with political bickering. If you don’t understand that, any result you get may be abused and you may find yourself fired or at least the victim of a smear campaign.

    BTW, I wonder if the other side have hackers too now busy trying to crack the mail systems of CEI, Fred Singer etc?

  2. #2 dm
    December 7, 2009

    Interesting how this article tries to frame climate-gate argument as a political tool while completely avoiding that the climate change issue is a complete fraud pushed as a political tool. There is no science behind the concept and most real scientists acknowledge this. Carbon is NOT a problem as the data clearly indicates. Water vapor is the primary “greenhouse” gas by orders of magnitude. Going to tax the ocean? Maybe menace some innocent little school children that they are bad because there is water vapor in their breath? The heating and cooling of the earth is directly proportionate to solar activity. In a thus far nine year cycle of decreased solar activity, global temperatures have shown a cooling trend not a warming one. Global cooling. Also interesting how it seems be completely ignored that the original “hack” was a leak of data to reporters, among them the BBC, by insiders at East Anglia weeks before the story broke. The hack story is more sensational and easier to play down, is it not?
    Protect, preserve, conserve. Give the carbon-ists, alarmists, and propagandists and their unhealthy agendas the boot. Or better yet, brought to justice for perpetuating terror against the ignorant masses.

  3. #3 Anonymous
    December 7, 2009

    climate change issue is a complete fraud pushed as a political tool.

    So..there should be evidence of this. Right? That major institutions world wide appear to come up with the same data and similar models, all due to a conspiracy?

    There is no science behind the concept and most real scientists acknowledge this.

    All the major scientific organizations have endorsed the IPCC report on global warming, and it points to humans as major drivers.

    Carbon is NOT a problem as the data clearly indicates. Water vapor is the primary “greenhouse” gas by orders of magnitude.

    Humans are currently putting extra 28 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions into the athmosphere. Can you name a natural water vapor source that has increased dramatically recently?

    The heating and cooling of the earth is directly proportionate to solar activity.

    Solar activity, which has been pretty benign. Not much there.

    Global cooling.

    Not according to the graphs. Bunch of blind-tested statisticians could tell you that. They confirmed the warming trend from the data.

    Or better yet, brought to justice for perpetuating terror against the ignorant masses.

    Fortunately, you only perpetuate error, not terror. I’m hopeful the masses will see you for your ignorance.

  4. #4 Lyle
    December 8, 2009

    The issue is that the climate change has evolved into a set of apocalyptic predictions. People get apocalypse fatigue after a while (Hansens latest statement seems to go in this direction). The way you have to market the issue is whats in it for me more concretely than saving the world in 40 to 90 years. “Whats in it for me” is the critical question. Market the positive a bit more. Promote the whole decarbonization of energy point (wood to coal to oil to natural gas over the last 100 years) pointing out the question can be framed do we want to accelerate the trend or not?
    Next shut up/denounce the world has to much population/club of Rome group in the backers, they hurt the message.

    Secondly the folks need to do a bit of put up or shut up, starting with getting all their homes up to Leed Gold or Platinum standards. (Showing they believe the problem is real enough they are willing to lay their money where their mouth is) Gore should start and get his to Platinum. A lot of folks smell elite hypocrisy i.e. do what I say not what I do. Also the elite who push climate change should be content with one home.
    Recall that you are asking the populace to sacrifice, at least in their minds, so make yourself a good example. Then work to go to the lowest carbon intensity mode of travel even if it means loosing some time (again sacrifice to show you really mean it). Traveling in a private plane because your time is so precious, but telling people their time is to sacrifice is bad marketing.