Framing Science

At NewYorkTimes.com, Alex Kaplun of Greenwire reports on emails exchanged among several prominent climate scientists regarding possible plans to fight back against the “neo-McCarthyism” of political leaders such as James Inhofe.

The anger on the part of several scientists that is revealed in the emails is understandable. These scientists, members of the National Academies, have been personally attacked by commentators and threatened with legal action by Inhofe.

I have a great deal of respect for many of the scientists mentioned in the article. However, I side with the warnings offered by several other scientists in the email exchanges, and urge that scientists as a group think carefully and systematically about their communication plans and what might be at the root of continued societal inaction on climate change.

Multiple surveys show a decline in public concern with climate change and it’s clear that political momentum for policy action has stalled. But there are several likely causes, the direct efforts of the climate skeptic movement just one of them, and probably one of the more minor causes.

These other factors include the economy, confusion over colder weather and other perceptual biases, general distrust of government, climate policies such as cap and trade that are not easily sold as effective or in line with public values, the absence of strong Presidential leadership on the issue, institutional barriers in Congress and at the international level, and the continued belief by some scientists and advocates that public support and policy action will turn on science rather than on a calculation of values and trade-offs.

In light of these many complex factors, for some scientists to angrily and emotionally focus on climate skeptics as the primary source of societal inaction is a major distraction and it reflects their own perceptual biases. These biases are well understood and predicted by past research in communication. They include a tendency for individuals heavily involved on an issue to perceive almost all news coverage as hostile to their goals (even news coverage that favors their position); to presume much larger effects for a message on the public than the actual influence; and to apply a faulty quasi-statistical sense to where public opinion might actually stand on a subject, perceiving public opinion as hostile, no matter what the objective indicators might say.

When scientists and advocates, motivated by these biased perceptions, respond with tit- for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it takes energy and effort away from offering a positive message and well-planned engagement campaign that builds public support for climate action and instead feeds a downward spiral of “war” and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.

Alternative positive messages and strategies include re-defining climate change away from just being an environmental problem, to being a national security, public health, and economic problem, with policies that would lead to societal benefits in these areas rather than just perceived economic sacrifice, hardship, and costs. 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 and who can communicate about the benefits that would occur from specific policies, both at the national and local level.

Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have single-handedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief–and then adopt a warfare posture and “fighting back” strategy against skeptics–they call further media attention to the original “ClimateGate” event and feed the preferred narrative of skeptics.

If the tit-for-tat attacks from the tail ends of the spectrum on climate change continue unabated, what was once presumed influence on the part of these scientists will likely become real influence on public opinion, and scientists risk being partly responsible.

In other words, while some scientists may think that “fighting back” is the solution, they may actually risk further contributing to the problem of public disengagement and policy inaction.

In a report on the emails at the conservative Washington Times, Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry offers an accurate observation and warning:

“Sounds like this group wants to step up the warfare, continue to circle the wagons, continue to appeal to their own authority, etc.,” said Judith A. Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Surprising, since these strategies haven’t worked well for them at all so far.”

She said scientists should downplay their catastrophic predictions, which she said are premature, and instead shore up and defend their research. She said scientists and institutions that have been pushing for policy changes “need to push the disconnect button for now,” because it will be difficult to take action until public confidence in the science is restored.

“Hinging all of these policies on global climate change with its substantial element of uncertainty is unnecessary and is bad politics, not to mention having created a toxic environment for climate research,” she said.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob Carlson
    March 8, 2010

    “…urge that scientists as a group think carefully and systematically about their communication plans and what might be at the root of continued societal inaction on climate change.”

    No societal action has any hope of solving the problem as long as governments not only don’t have policies on birth control but instead see growth as essential for a healthy economy. When was the last time you heard a politician campaign on a promise to shrink the economy? :)

  2. #2 Hits of the Future
    March 8, 2010

    At this point, Mr. Nisbet, I can only conclude that you are actually Zalgon 26 McGee.

  3. #3 paulina
    March 8, 2010

    Matt:

    You write:

    “But there are several likely causes, the direct efforts of the climate skeptic movement just one of them, and probably one of the more minor causes.”

    and

    “Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have single-handedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief…”

    Two questions:

    Can you please point to the passages in the Greenwire article that led you to suppose that the scientists involved presumed that “climate skeptics” single-handedly had swung polls?

    Can you explain why, in your list of causes, other than “skeptics,” you did not include misleading media coverage? Surely the “hostile media effect” issues do not mean that we should just ignore misleading media coverage altogether?

  4. #4 ChicagoMike
    March 8, 2010

    Bob Carlson: “No societal action has any hope of solving the problem as long as governments not only don’t have policies on birth control but instead see growth as essential for a healthy economy.”

    My understanding is that population growth is primarily a problem for the developing world (fertility rates are basically at or below the replacement rate in most of the developed world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fertility_rate_world_map_2.png), and the most effective policies for stabilizing population are improving women’s access to education, healthcare, family planning, and the political system. Chinese-style government mandates would be much more difficult to enact in all of the developing world (Al Gore has a really good chapter on this issue in his new book: Our Choice).

    I agree that governments often give too much importance to GDP growth to the exclusion of better indicators of societal well being, but I’ve heard that preventing dangerous climate is doable at a cost of about 5% of global GDP annually for the next 50+ years (possibly much less: http://climateprogress.org/2008/12/29/mckinsey-2008-research-in-review-stabilizing-at-450-ppm-has-a-net-cost-near-zero/). There’s no reason this should mean the end of economic growth.

    I think we need to emphasize the positive benefits of making a global transition to clean energy if we’re going to have any chance of taking action before it’s too late.

  5. #5 Sam C
    March 8, 2010

    Shouldn’t you take a course in Framing Framing? Don’t you realise that when you produce yet another “be nice to the nasty people because you don’t want to look bad to the ignorant plebs” piece that you simply annoy real scientists?

    Do you think that nobody notices that in your pieces anybody you agree with makes an “accurate observation” and garners mucho praise from your pen, but you pile up heaps of opprobrium for unnamed noisy scientists who “inaccurately presume” (I think you mean assume, but perhaps you don’t own a dictionary) and are “motivated by misconceptions”?

    Learn something from the scientists. Instead of a puddle of unsubstantiated opinion presented ex cathedra, pull together some evidence first, then some analysis of that evidence.

    We know what you’re doing. I suspect that most of us are not convinced. Fewer words and opinions, more facts and analysis if you want to be taken seriously.

    It’s really quite odd having lectures on how not to alienate folk from a communicator who has alienated a large part of his own target audience!

  6. #6 keith
    March 8, 2010

    Scientists should _really_ stick to the science, and focus on making that as clean and as verifiable as possible.

    Once scientists start playing with the fire that is public politics they rapidly loose all sense of perceived objectivity in the eyes of the public and become nothing more than an educated misdirected mouthpiece that will be repeatedly eaten alive by those far better at the political process.

    Stick to the science and work on making it clean and understandable for others to base their decisions on. Let others do the politics, for they are far better at it.

  7. #7 Hey! Get This . . .
    March 9, 2010

    Please be reminded of Immanuel Velikovsky, the AAAS and Carl Sagan, et al.

    The time came for an assertive response to unscientific (but popularized) writings. Such action is very much more needed to counter a situation which, in contrast with that involving Velikovsky, is highly propagandized and manipulated for political advantage.

    The response needs to be in the mode of Sagan’s: aimed at reaching both the minds and the emotions of the general public.

  8. #8 Mark Powell
    March 9, 2010

    Matt, interesting exchange with Randy Olson on Dot Earth, including his response to some of the points you raise above. My first reaction on reading the exchange is that “they’re both right, although Matt more so.”

    Do you think there is a way to unite part of what Randy is saying with your views?

    The part of Randy’s argument that seems important is the “passionless” critique of scientists. Can scientists stick to the truth, frame their messages well, and also ramp up the passion and human quality of their message in a way that makes scientists more sympathetic as people while framing their message in a way that escapes the negative frame of fighting back?

  9. #9 JG
    March 9, 2010

    She said scientists should downplay their catastrophic predictions, which she said are premature, and instead shore up and defend their research. She said scientists and institutions that have been pushing for policy changes “need to push the disconnect button for now,” because it will be difficult to take action until public confidence in the science is restored.

    So what she’s advising is that the best strategy is just to hang around until it’s too late?

  10. #10 toby
    March 9, 2010

    Joe Romm at Climate Progress repeated this advice from Juan Cole, a political scientist whose views on the Middle East have made him a hate figure.

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/03/03/juan-coles-advice-to-climate-scientists-on-how-to-avoid-being-swift-boated/

    They are all variations on “don’t feed the trolls”. Al Gore has been impeccably following this advice … he has not departed from his usual schedule, and had a recent op-ed in the NYT. Whatever you think of Gore, his example is to be followed.

    The more furore and furious accusation and counter-accusation, the better for the trolls. This is not a political campaign, the good science will win, as it always does. The evidence for global warming keeps mounting up, the public are sick of Climategate (and their memories are short, capable of being persuaded it was a storm in a teacup), however anyone who goes public with the science can expect to have mud throw at them.

  11. #11 Douglas Watts
    March 10, 2010

    This post is meaningless, concern-troll drivel.

  12. #12 Mark Powell
    March 11, 2010

    Never wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy and the pig likes it…

    To borrow a phrase.

  13. #13 sustainability
    May 13, 2010

    Climate change is the biggest threat to all our futures. It will affect every individual, every family, every community, every business and every country

  14. #14 James Hannon
    November 8, 2010

    “tail ends of the spectrum on climate change” is a perfect example of the false equivalency problem so central to mainstream media reporting on politics, science and almost everything else. Scientists know better than Inhofe and other political ideologues what is true about climate change. They need to expose the lack of knowledge of climate change deniers as well as the economic interests that support the deniers.

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