Framing Science

Last month, I did an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper on the stolen CRU emails. The feature story provides useful background and context on the communication dynamics of the event. Yet in organizing these details and assembling quotes, the reporter applies a now dominant narrative that the controversy is the latest sign of the growing strength of the climate skeptic movement, a movement fueled by the “anti-science” hostility of American society.

The moral lesson of this narrative, told by liberal commentators and reflected at mainstream outlets and various science media, argues that it’s time for scientists to “fight back” and to become more politically savvy, with scientists encouraged to go so far as to organize political action committees and to openly support “pro-science” candidates. Scientists are told to learn how to better communicate with the public and with reporters, but only instrumentally, as a way to achieve their own ends and goals.

In short, from commentators on the left, the science community is being strongly encouraged to become more political and more partisan. Communication about issues such as climate change is a “street fight” that requires “war room”-style political campaigning.

Yet, the danger of this narrative and its recommendations, as Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom recently wrote at the LA Times, is that “citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes.”

Instead of becoming more political and partisan, science institutions need to innovate and re-invest in public engagement initiatives that are aimed at restoring public trust, increasing transparency and public accountability, and increasing public participation in decisions related to science.

The communication goal is not to win a fictional struggle between “pro-science” good guys (usually Democrats) and “anti-science” bad guys (usually Republicans), but rather to increase and broaden public learning and input relative to how expert knowledge is developed, managed, and applied. The goal is to distribute and enable power across groups in society rather than to consolidate it within science institutions or within a specific political party.

Public engagement initiatives to these ends might range from hiring additional staff to process FOI requests while rethinking norms and policies related to the sharing and public release of data. Staff are also needed to effectively handle crisis communication situations in a way that enhances transparency and maintains public trust. These initiatives would also include longer term and more intensive investments in educating scientists, the public, and policymakers about the realities and myths of science-society relations, and the importance of public dialogue, two-way communication, and inclusive decision-making. These initiatives would also include new mechanisms for funding public engagement initiatives and for their organization and sponsorship, especially at the local and regional level.

These were among some of the major recommendations voiced at a recent panel held at the annual AGU meetings. For more on these goals and initiatives, see this recent paper. Also see this paper by Daniel Sarewitz at Issues in Science and Technology. For an example from the EU of educating scientists on science-society relations and public engagement, see this recent article.

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    January 4, 2010

    I don’t think this is sufficient.

    There is a discussion going on about civility in public discourse on some other threads, and one of the salient points is that you cannot divest truthful criticism or sugarcoat things. Science does not work this way. People need to sack up or ovary up and learn to deal with reality, because it is sure as shit not going to conform itself to any human’s expectations unless that human’s expectations already happen to conform with it. The universe and laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are the arbiters of its truth, not humanity and the lens it views things through.

    It is unwise to coddle people, and I get the impression that’s what you and Mooney have suggested.

    I and others are in fact sure as shit not inclined to accomodate views based on things unproven, of which all world religions and their fallacious entwining of epistemology and ethics are the paragon examples. Someone put it really well on another thread:

    “People only believe [the absurd idea that a secular, atheistic world view is ethically permissive of anything, however good or bad it is] because the perpetrators of religion insist on pretending that atheists have no morals.

    It is in no way implied by atheism; it is attached to it by people who spread misunderstanding – many of whom have a clear financial stake in doing so. It is not a false impression which can be corrected by changing the way science is taught; it can only be changed by directly attacking those who tell lies about atheism.”

    Here’s an idea: instead of accomodationism, perhaps you and Mooney and the others who I think we on the side of being more harsh rightly criticize could give us advice on how best to give this news to society WITHOUT distorting the message. Because, again, we refuse to coddle society.

    Another problem, I think, is that brevity has more oomph with uneducated idiots, and that it is hard for we who are tasked with being careful and scientific in what we say or do to condense what we want to say down to a few words without losing significant meaning. I don’t think you understand this, and I think it would be a good idea if you and Mooney and others spent a few months observing a laboratory and took some science courses to know what actually goes on in here. You are not scientists yourselves. I get the impression that you do not understand the amount of thought and care that goes into the messages we already send that you criticize.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    January 4, 2010

    Hi Katharine,

    I think you are making my point.

    –Matt

  3. #3 Anonymous
    January 4, 2010

    Well, I don’t think I’m making your point, and here’s why.

    “Instead of becoming more political and partisan, science institutions need to innovate and re-invest in public engagement initiatives that are aimed at restoring public trust, increasing transparency and public accountability, and increasing public participation in decisions related to science.”

    This is being done. The problem is that, from my point of view, issues that are not political in nature are being made political by people who are invested in it – essentially every global warming denialist organization out there has got people on its board who are economically invested in strategies that are inimical to the future of the Earth. I mentioned in another thread that there are some gigantic psychological hurdles that people are going to have to address, such as people’s economic investment, social investment (people have been disowned or ostracized from their circles for various differences in beliefs; in my opinion, rather than sticking to cruddy beliefs, one ought to change their social circles or decide that a family who’s going to ostracize you for having different beliefs about something isn’t a family worth having), and how dumb they are. It’s not just a political thing. Politics is a product of people.

    “The communication goal is not to win a fictional struggle between “pro-science” good guys (usually Democrats) and “anti-science” bad guys (usually Republicans), but rather to increase and broaden public learning and input relative to how expert knowledge is developed, managed, and applied. The goal is to distribute and enable power across groups in society rather than to consolidate it within science institutions or within a specific political party.”

    But what groups? One thing that a lot of us in science have suggested is to start teaching critical thinking as early as elementary school; this would help a lot. Society needs much broader, much more fundamental changes than just that.

    In addition, the issue of liberalism and conservatism may be pertinent as well. Michael Shermer wrote an article in Scientific American recently that evaluated individuals on what appears to be five scales of universal ‘concerns': harm/care, justice/injustice, ingroup/outgroup, authority/respect and ‘purity’/’impurity’ (in addition, reference Robert Altemeyer’s ‘The Authoritarians’). Liberals score highly on placing importance on the first two and score low on the other three, whereas conservatives score middle of the road on all five. (In my opinion, placing any sort of importance on the last three pushes tribalism, regression, and destruction.) One has to evaluate how things such as these five categories intersect with people’s interaction with science; for example, global warming denialists, who seem to be overwhelmingly right-wing and religious, may consider we who are aware of global warming to be ‘outgroup’ and thereby write us off almost blindly, and in addition, they may (somewhat arbitrarily and thoughtlessly, in my opinion) assign authority to their religion’s clergy and not to people who are somewhat more tasked with examining evidence and looking at things in an empirical manner.

    What I’m trying to say is that the issue is probably significantly more complicated and pervasive and deeply ingrained into certain parts of society more than people are willing to acknowledge (would it unsettle them too much to acknowledge it fully?).

    “Public engagement initiatives to these ends might range from hiring additional staff to process FOI requests while rethinking norms and policies related to the sharing and public release of data. Staff are also needed to effectively handle crisis communication situations in a way that enhances transparency and maintains public trust.”

    This is going to be really hard to work out. Information is getting really hard to regulate these days, and while freedom of information is good, the problem is that people who see it might not have the background necessary to process it correctly.

    “These initiatives would also include longer term and more intensive investments in educating scientists, the public, and policymakers about the realities and myths of science-society relations, and the importance of public dialogue, two-way communication, and inclusive decision-making. These initiatives would also include new mechanisms for funding public engagement initiatives and for their organization and sponsorship, especially at the local and regional level.”

    I think, in many ways, a lot of us DO understand the realities and myths of how we interact with the rest of society. I think, however, that the rest of society’s going to have to do its part too, and that the situation is much more muddled than most think.

  4. #4 Katharine
    January 4, 2010

    Er, I wrote that last post .

  5. #5 Phil
    January 4, 2010

    But rather like dealing with extremists who shall not be named, you are assuming logic will change minds. It won’t. These people are usually of two stripes. The paid shills who are going to ignore what you say anyway, and the deluded who are cherry picking their one in 900 scientists who agree with them.
    You are far better off knocking the heads of the journalists who give false balance to ludicrous ideas. Just my opinion.

  6. #6 Isis the Scientist
    January 4, 2010

    People need to sack up or ovary up and learn to deal with reality, because it is sure as shit not going to conform itself to any human’s expectations unless that human’s expectations already happen to conform with it. The universe and laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are the arbiters of its truth, not humanity and the lens it views things through.

    I’m not so sure this is an effective strategy for dealing with the public.

  7. #7 co2isnotevil
    January 4, 2010

    You are over generalizing when you claim Democrats are pro science and Republicans are anti science. You are also incorrect by stating that the climategate response is in any way driven by an anti science mentality. If anything, it’s driven by people against bad science and people against fudging science to conform with political agendas.

    It’s certainly true that if you examine the politics of the climategate principles, they are mostly left of center, as are most of those who deny the climategate truth. It’s also true that more than half of those who see the climategate disclosures as the smoking gun are right of center. All this tells me is that politics has inappropriately subverted science.

    The climategate emails and data reveal the extraordinarily sloppy science that the far left relied on to justify trillions of dollars in ‘reparations’ and trillions more for a grand experiment in climate control based on CO2 regulation. They also reveal the depths those who controlled the information went in order to keep the truth about this atrocious bastardization of science away from the public.

    If we learn anything from climategate, it’s that whenever controversy surrounds science, the consensus is more often wrong than right. The next time someone claims that the science is over and there’s no need for debate, people other than scientists like myself, should question their motives and ask why they are so afraid of debate.

    George

  8. #8 Don
    January 5, 2010

    George: I was thinking of your post when I read about the controversy about concussions in football and realized that there is much more room for debate, many more years of kid football to go. Apropos, the business of the trillions (no actually kazillions) that the far left has forced the tobacco companies to spend on research to defend themselves against the sloppy science claiming that smoking causes cancer. You have got it, you hit it on the head, controversy of any sort means that you are right and they are wrong. Climategate, Tobaccogate, Helmetgate, Watergate (a new one, in the California Central Valley, where the far left wants to destroy the agriculture that feeds the world to save a tiny (no really tiny) fish.

  9. #9 Katharine
    January 5, 2010

    Don, it is not the nicotine that causes cancer. It is the OTHER crap in things people smoke that causes cancer.

    co2isnotevil, what is your degree in? Physics? Obviously not climate biology. Also, you are full of crap.

    Isis, I can’t think of anything else that appropriately honors scientific evidence.

  10. #10 James Sweet
    January 6, 2010

    I don’t see any inherent contradiction between increasing “nice guy” public engagement initiatives (e.g. hiring additional staff to process FOI requests sounds like a damn good idea in the wake Climategate) and “knocking the heads of[f] the journalists who give false balance to ludicrous ideas,” as Phil suggests.

    This is a already a street fight, and ignoring that reality is just putting your head in the sand and imagining that the only reason anybody becomes an AGW denier or a Creationist or what have you is because a budding scientist was mean to them in junior high (wait, isn’t it the other way around?). This, of course, does not absolve the Good Guys from an obligation to speak the truth, as well as to provide an interface by which the engagement-receptive public can be suitably engaged.

    But we also need to recognize that a huge fraction of the public can never be engaged — and they get to vote just as much as you or I, and furthermore tend to be pretty damn motivated to do so. Political mobilization in favor of the side that happens to be right should not be taboo.

  11. #11 James Sweet
    January 6, 2010

    And if my previous comment sounds a bit black-and-white… that’s because a latent anti-intellectualism in American society has metastasized in recent decades, resulting in one side being really, really, astoundingly wrong. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree on a whole host of issues, but… that’s just not the situation we are looking at right now.

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