Framing Science

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Last week I presented at a workshop hosted by AAAS on “Promoting Climate Literacy Through Informal Science.” There were a number of outstanding presentations and themes discussed including a plenary talk by historian Naomi Oreskes detailing the central arguments of her forthcoming book on the origins of the climate skeptic movement.

There are plans to make available online the various presentation materials, so I will post again when those are ready. In the meantime, I have pasted below the text from remarks I gave as part of a panel on framing. These remarks also follow closely some of the central themes discussed earlier this month at a panel hosted by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard:

I am going to open today with some background on understanding research in the area of framing and how it applies to climate change communication. I also specifically want to address the differences between using framing for advocacy purposes and using framing for public engagement and to promote civic education. I hope we can also come back to these themes during the Q&A period.

Then as an example, I am going to move to slides that present the results of research that I am doing in collaboration with Ed Maibach that examines how a diversity of Americans respond when climate change is framed for them as a public health problem.

“Frames” are the conceptual term from the social sciences for interpretative storylines that communicate the relevance of an issue or an event, its causes, its impacts, and its possible solutions. As I will show you in a moment, framing research employs social science techniques such as in-depth interviews, surveys, and media analysis to systematically identify the metaphors, examples, and mental frameworks that the public, journalists, and experts use to understand, discuss, and make choices about an issue.

There is no such thing as “unframed” information. Framing is an unavoidable part of human communication. For example, if I asked someone in this room to stand up and describe why climate change matters and what can be done about the issue, given our shared backgrounds, most of you would likely begin by describing the scientific causes of climate change, then move to focus on the environment-related impacts and risks, and then probably talk about the need to educate the public and/or the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions. [In a more casual setting, you might also define the issue of climate change by referencing “politicization” on the part of conservatives and industry.]

Yet the lens of either environmental impacts or politicization are only two of several frames of reference on climate change that are consistent with expert views and understanding. For example, an ethicist or theologian might describe the relevance of climate change in terms of moral obligations to future generations, to the most vulnerable in society, or in terms of being stewards of God’s creation. An economist, alternatively, might emphasize instead the opportunity to restructure and grow the economy around energy technologies, and a defense expert might focus on the risks to national security.

Not every member of the public cares about risks to the environment or about the politicization of science, yet among many climate communicators, these mental points of reference continue to be a dominant emphasis. In order to restart the conversation about why climate change matters and the options for addressing the issue, new and complementary perceptual contexts are needed, mental boxes that resonate with what specific segments of the public already value or understand.

This does not mean replacing a focus on environmental science and impacts with other frames of reference, but rather it means partnering scientists and science educators with opinion leaders from across sectors of society who can speak to complementary dimensions of the issue.

This cannot be done intuitively or as a matter of guesswork and it entails far more than simply tailoring your message to an audience. It requires resources, formative and evaluative research, careful planning, institutional commitment and cultural change within science, and well designed training and curricula program for scientists, educators, and graduate students.

Also, importantly, when science organizations, science centers, and universities apply framing research, the goal should not be to “sell” the public on climate change or to advocate for a particular policy such as cap and trade or an international treaty. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. Moreover, this type of advocacy work threatens public trust in scientists and their institutions.

The goal should also not be simply to “improve science literacy,” a term I would argue respectfully is too often used as a slogan or a brand device rather than as a carefully defined concept that is translated and evaluated relative to specific outcomes.

I would argue instead, that on climate change, a more relevant concept to emphasize than literacy is civic education and engagement which means empowering, enabling, motivating, informing, and educating the public around the technical, political, and social dimensions of climate change….but remembering what the public does with the acquired knowledge, motivation, skills, and resources and how they participation on the issue, is up to them.

In addition, unlike literacy which has a uni-directional connotation that problematizes and blames a “knowledge deficient” public, engagement is as much about informing the public as it is about also informing experts and decision-makers. Communication should be viewed as a two-way process–with frames providing the context for dialogue– where experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options.

As an example of framing research, I now want to review how a diversity of Americans respond to information about climate change when defined in terms of public health…

To view video and a version of the slides that I then presented at the AAAS workshop, go to the 32 minute mark of a similar presentation I gave at a recent panel at the meetings of the American Geophysical Union. The research presented is in collaboration with Ed Maibach at George Mason University and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.