Framing Science


On Thursday, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, I served as one of the panelists at the event “The Public Divide over Climate Change: Science, Skeptics and the Media.” The two hour session drew roughly 100 attendees, was organized and moderated by Belfer Center fellow Cristine Russell, and featured Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog and Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Kennedy School.

Audio of the panel is available at the Kennedy School web site and the event was covered in detail by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Harvard Gazette. Separate press summaries are posted at the Web sites for the sponsoring Shorenstein and Belfer Centers at the Kennedy School. In the rest of this post, I highlight several key points made by the panelists and attending faculty from Harvard with the minute mark of the audio included, so that readers can listen in.

Highlights From the Prepared Remarks of Panelists

In Russell’s introductory remarks as organizer and moderator (4 min mark of audio), the veteran journalist set the tone for the panel, by emphasizing the tremendous acrimony from both the left and the right on climate change and the need to identify ways to improve overall public dialogue on the issue.

Andrew Revkin (13 min mark) noted that he was making his first public remarks since accepting a buy out from his position as chief environmental reporter at the New York Times. A master of using metaphor to convey a complex concept, Revkin compared public opinion on climate change to “waves in a shallow pan” that will tip to either side based on focusing events or news trends leading to “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” Revkin also predicted that in coming years, information about climate change will come less and less from journalists and their news organizations, and instead from other parties, notably either scientists themselves (through their organizations, universities, or own social media strategies) or through advocates including climate skeptics and environmentalists.


In my remarks (25 min mark), I opened by suggesting several important themes for discussion before then moving to present findings from current research with Ed Maibach on how a diversity of Americans respond to information about the potential health impacts of climate change. My opening remarks focused specifically on understanding the apparent impact that “ClimateGate” has had both on the public but also on the political outlook of scientists, particularly the use of ClimateGate by skeptics to drive a new public accountability narrative about scientists. I have pasted the text of those remarks in a separate post. To view video and a version of the slides that I presented at Harvard, go to the 32 minute mark of a similar presentation I gave at a recent panel at the meetings of the American Geophysical Union.

Since beginning graduate school, I have often turned for insight to the work of Harvard professor Tom Patterson, one of the leading scholars in the field of political communication. In his remarks (40 min 30 sec mark), Patterson referenced a classic study conducted in the 1950s that showed that even back in an age of a mass audience, campaigns designed to inform the public often had very limited effects. As Patterson also observed, even on those issues such as the health care debate that dominate news attention, public knowledge remains low. These realities along with other factors, as Patterson concluded, underscore just how difficult it is for journalists and scientists to engage the public on climate change, which is not only deeply complex and politically polarized but also remains at best a mid-tier issue on the overall news agenda [see also this relevant blog post from last week].

Highlights from the Q&A and Discussion

From the audience, there were several important questions and points made. Three in particular are likely to be of special interest to readers:

1. First, Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard, directed her question my way ( 1 hour mark), noting the important influence of framing but suggesting that the real focus for the news media and institutions should be to invest in a long term global shift in values relative to the environment. As Jasanoff argued, to focus on issues such as public health–which was a strategy also used by the environmental movement in the 1970s–might be a short term fix for generating greater public attention to climate change policy, but would potentially distract the news media and other institutions from the longer term goal of shifting environmental values.

In my reply, which you can listen to on the audio, I acknowledged that I thought Jasanoff and I agreed on most of these issues. Indeed, I have drawn heavily on Jasanoff’s scholarship in my own work. However, I would add to my reply at the panel that I think the challenge is to engage the public at both levels. In other words, institutions and organizations– through school-based curricula, changes in workplace norms, and changes in organizational practice–can and should begin the several decade socialization process of promoting a shift in environmental values.

But over the next decade, we also need to be emphasizing the public health dimension. Not only does this new focus increase personal significance and relevance but it also communicates about objectively real and scientifically well-documented risks that the public should know about. It also starts to promote greater attention to adaptation policies and strategies–such as evacuation procedures, water and agricultural sanitation policies, improved housing, cooling stations during heat waves, and new transportation infrastructures– that are needed to protect people and communities and that also result in healthier and higher quality lives.

This does not mean replacing environmental coverage of climate change with public health coverage, but rather continuing and complementing the news attention to environmental impacts with stories providing context and information about health impacts, especially as they relate to specific regions or cities. [Increasing the capacity of news organizations to do this, especially at the local level, is a related question that the Q&A discussion also touched on.]

The public health focus also needs to be carefully calibrated to be consistent with scientific uncertainty. Warnings and predictions about estimated deaths attributable to climate change, for example, are likely to be challenged as alarmist and discounted by the public. Such predictions–if proven false or exaggerated–also threaten to undermine public trust. Yet focusing instead, for example, on the linkages between a warmer and wetter climate in a region such as Washington, DC and the implications for allergies or asthma, is likely to be an effective way to personalize climate change while also providing information on how the most vulnerable can cope with the problem.

2. A second important question (1 hour, 10 minute mark) was directed to the panel by William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development at Harvard.

Clark noted that in his research and experience, what appeared to be especially important to policy change was the cumulative effect of a diversity of networked and interconnected professional and social groups, which gradually begin to take account of climate change as one of the major criteria by which they make decisions and interact with government. Given the central connection between group-based politics and social change, Clark questioned why there was so much attention to the need for broader public engagement or even if broader public opinion mattered to policy action.

Tom Patterson replied that he believed that Clark was correct, much policy change is driven by the activities of these networked social and professional groups and their related “issue publics.” But he also noted, when it comes to debates over systemic changes to policy–such as cap and trade legislation or health care legislation–the broader public has to be involved. As Patterson described, the general public as interpreted through opinion polls, news coverage, and constituent pressure become an important part of the decision calculus of elected officials.

Revkin followed with his perspective as a journalist. Revkin said that what Clark described is really the story of special interests, whether on climate change it be the farm state interests, clean coal interests, or the nuclear energy industry. The relevance to journalists is that it becomes very difficult to cover policy options or dimensions of the issue that fall outside the agenda and focus of these powerful interest groups. Journalists may not only lack the skill set and time to go beyond “indexing” (my term from the political science literature) the policies advocated by special interests, but it is also difficult to convince editors to devote the space and attention to a broader range of policies.

My reply to Clark followed up on Patterson’s points. Climate change, which necessitates a non-incremental, systemic change in policy, should be compared to other similar policy debates where wider public opinion has played a decisive role. For example, on immigration reform, Congress and President Bush had reached agreement on legislation and a majority of Americans supported reform, but the opinion intensity on the issue was on the side of the opposition. Combined with the efforts of conservative media, the constituent voice that was heard from fence-sitters in Congress was a strong voice of opposition, and as a result, legislation failed.

Similarly, you can debate the merits of mid-1990s Welfare reform and definitely condemn in terms of ethics the specific messages used, but it is a clear example where wider public opinion and support was critical to passing systemic policy change at the national level. Here is how I described this process in a recently published book chapter on framing and policy debates:

For decades, in attacking the welfare system, conservatives claimed that symptoms associated with poverty such as crime, teen pregnancy, and drugs were in fact the result of a permissive system that allowed lifelong dependency on government assistance. Poverty, in fact, was an outcome of big government. By the early 1990s, centrist Democrats had concluded that conservatives had successfully used welfare to turn the public against any public spending and to stoke the flames of racism. Yet they reasoned that if Democrats could reform welfare and make government aid recipients appear to “play by the rules,” then they could claim political credit, under cut racism, and mobilize the public in support of more effective anti-poverty policies. Soon after his election, Clinton set the agenda for these efforts, vowing in his 1993 State of the Union address to “end welfare as we know it”(Soss and Schram, 2007).

Playing on the public’s conflicting orientations towards individualism and compassion for the “deserving poor,” both conservatives and centrist Democrats recast policy initiatives in terms of “welfare to work,” and labeled bills using frame devices such as “personal responsibility,” “temporary assistance,” and “family self-sufficiency.” Uglier, more tacit messages evoked the myth of the “black welfare queen” or similar race codes, while the news media’s episodic presentation style and skewed depictions of race further reinforced individual attributions (Schram & Soss, 2001).

This message campaign successfully redefined welfare for the public as a social crisis. In 1992, only 7% of the public named welfare as the most important problem facing the country, but by 1996, this number had crested to 27% (Soss & Schram, 2007). In fact, by 1996, given magnified media attention and selective interpretations that played on public values and racial attitudes, more than 60% of Americans supported handing responsibility for welfare over to the states, and a similar number supported capping welfare benefits at five years. In August 1996, following successful Congressional passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more than 80% of the public said that they supported Clinton signing the bill into law (Shaw & Shapiro, 2002).

3. A third important question came from friend and journalist Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and blogger at Discover’s The Intersection. Mooney noted that in his own book, he had plied the public accountability frame to draw attention to perceived political wrong doing on the part of the Bush administration and conservatives. This message was also taken up by many liberal advocates and organizations. Now that the Obama administration is in power, observed Mooney, shouldn’t we have been prepared that climate skeptics were going to turn to the public accountability message to leverage their own political goals?

I agreed that it should have been expected, in part, because public accountability is an enduring theme in American politics and culture and one that captures the attention of the public and journalists. The question, however, is the impact of this strategy. As I wrote last year in a paper at the journal Environment, the “War on Science” message mobilized a base of concern among environmentalists, scientists, and liberals, but was probably ignored as more elite bickering by other segments of the public. The impact of “ClimateGate,” similarly, is likely to reinforce the views of those already deeply dismissive of climate change, but have limited impact on other members of the public [see panel remarks in this post.]

A related issue is the key differences between public communication as advocacy and public communication as engagement. The distinction is important in a number of ways. Much of what science organizations and scientists do when it comes to outreach on policy-related issues has an implicit instrumental basis, turning to innovative methods to reach audiences with the hope and the belief that these efforts will lead the public to see the issue at question more as scientists do.

Yet as I noted at the panel, this particular outlook on public communication is somewhat analogous to how democracy building is often thought of relative to foreign policy: The U.S. invests in democracy building in countries, but the implicit goal and assumption is that the outcome will lead countries to be direct allies of the U.S. If this doesn’t happen, then democracy building is considered to have failed.

Engagement on science and society, on the other hand, is different from implicit advocacy, and should be thought of more in terms of civic education. The goal of engagement should be to empower, enable, motivate, inform, and educate the public around the technical, political, and social dimensions of a debate, but what they do with the acquired knowledge, motivation, skills, and resources is up to them.

Citizens may turn to working in support for example of cap and trade legislation, or alternatively, they may focus their participation on advocating for a carbon tax, supporting regional-level policies, advocating for nuclear energy investment, or they may ultimately decide that climate change is not as great a priority as other issues, such as economic development. That’s the nature of a democracy.

Moreover, engagement should be as much about informing the public as it should be about also informing experts and decision-makers. Communication should be viewed as a two-way process where experts and decision-makers learn from the public about, for example, how to adapt policies to a particular region or affected group, while coming to better understand the perspective of lay citizens, identifying effective innovations or even accepting new regimes for formulating and deciding policy [on these issues related to engagement, see this recent review paper.]


  1. #1 Jim
    February 8, 2010

    I despair of improving the attitudes of most of the public. They are enamored (using Revkin’s beautiful metaphor) of wave height and oblivious, or even hostile, to knowledge of the pan’s depths.

    Still, we will try to connect to a public which is primarily motivated by emotional responses instead of interest in subject matter. Maybe there is an inflection point, lurking just beyond the present chaos, that (once we are on its opposite flank) will drive us toward more civil and constructive public involvement in environmental policy.