The Intersection

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As a journalist who reports frequently on science, I never expected to be publishing in the literature. But tomorrow I will actually have a paper in the Policy Forum section of the latest issue of Science (April 6). To be sure, this wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t had a co-author who’s a real (social) scientist–our fellow Scienceblogger Matthew Nisbet, author of “Framing Science.” And indeed, that’s what the article is about: Nisbet and I are advising scientists to start to actively “frame” their knowledge, especially on hot-button issues like evolution, global warming, embryonic stem cell research.

On these highly politicized topics, scientists need to stop thinking that technical knowledge, alone, suffices to drive decision-making or change minds. That’s simply not how the media works, or how the public perceives and processes information. The article (which I’ll post as soon as available) ends with this coda:

Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring the traditional model of safely sticking to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that these facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

We fully expect that our suggestions may prompt some controversy. But after writing about the science-politics interface for the past several years, I’ve become firmly convinced of the need for a fundamental sea change in science communication strategies. Indeed, one theme of my forthcoming book, Storm World, is that many scientists don’t really know what they’re up against when suddenly thrust into the media spotlight and interactions with politicians. On a personal level, I think it’s the cumulative experience of researching and writing both The Republican War on Science and Storm World that has gradually brought me around to the opinion that my colleague, Dr. Nisbet, really has some advice that scientists need to listen to.

Moreover, Matt and I truly believe this message is urgent, because scientific topics will once again be pulled into the political crossfire in the context of the 2008 election. So in order to elaborate on our position, we’ll be making the argument in a number of upcoming talks, which will be geared towards the scientific community but also towards science advocates and defenders more generally.

In any event, here is a press release about the article (see here for the EurekaAlert version). And here is Matt’s own blog post announcing our news. Links will be added as they come in….

UPDATES: For those with passwords, you can now read the Science piece here. I will see about making it more widely available. See also here for some additional resources that expand the argument.

Meanwhile blog reactions are starting to come in and I will list them here, and soon enough, respond to them. So here goes, with most recent first:

* Carl Zimmer: “But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan.”

* Pharyngula: “I think Nisbet and Mooney are so focused on how better to fit scientist’s goals to the public’s perceptions that they neglect another important function: sometimes we want to change the public’s ideas. We want to break the frames of the debate and shift whole worldviews, and accommodating ourselves to the status quo won’t do.”

* Alan Boyle of MSNBC’s Cosmic Log: “For now, the Policy Forum essay is available only to Science’s subscribers, but I would argue this is one article that should be put out in the open online: After all, it’s designed to spark a wider discussion about how scientists engage themselves with the public, and makes great fodder for a host of Weblogs to chew on.” Actually, Boyle summarizes the article well enough that you can almost skip reading it…almost.

* Sandwalk: “I don’t know what “framing” is–and reading the blog isn’t much help–but it sounds an awful lot like spin to me.”

* John Fleck: “I am going to print out hundreds of copies of the piece in tomorrow’s Science by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney, to hand out to every scientist I meet.”

* Mike Dunford: “As long as the people we need to reach are uninterested in the science involved in the issue, we’re going to need to find other ways to get them interested in the issue itself. Framing the issue in a way that shows people why they should care is one way to do that, and I’m not sure that there is a better one.” (Also crossposted at Panda’s Thumb.)



  1. #1 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    April 5, 2007

    Nice job Chris! Be careful, it is almost a “pox on both houses”;-)

  2. #2 Trinifar
    April 5, 2007

    For those with passwords, you can now read the Science piece here. I will see about making it more widely available.

    That will be greatly appreciated. Irony abounds when an article about effective communication is put behind a pay-to-read firewall. 🙂 [yes I do understand you are reaching the right audience in Science. My poke is not at you, Chris, but at the general situation where research that is usually funded by tax dollars is often only made available at high cost to those of us outside the research establishments that our taxes fund.]

  3. #3 coturnix
    April 5, 2007

    For those of us without passwords,…. could you e-mail me the thing, please….

  4. #4 Alan Boyle
    April 5, 2007

    I’ll second that motion to liberate the essay, Chris. In the meantime, here’s my namby-pamby, equivocal reaction to the piece:

  5. #5 Kristina Chew
    April 5, 2007

    There is so much misunderstanding, so much misinformation, about “science” in regard to autism now that I think your editorial is more than timely and I look forward to reading the complete version.

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    April 5, 2007

    For now, I’ll email to anyone who asks….until someone tells me not to.

    Thanks a ton Alan for the thoughtful contribution. Matt and I will have more commentary soon….

  7. #7 Kristina Chew
    April 5, 2007

    I would much appreciate if if you might email me the editorial—I’m blogging on what you and Prof. Nisbet have posted right now.

  8. #8 Rob
    April 6, 2007


    One irony is the lack of time spent teaching scientists to communicate. My wife took math classes in engineering to the point that she thought “Bessel Functions of the Third Kind” was a funny joke. As an engineer, even when designing elements for nuclear reactors, she never used anything above a couple simple integrals. I’m a biochemist, and I used numerical methods for partial differential equations once as part of high power rocketry — a hobby!

    A much greater emphasis on science writing would help in writing journal articles for publication. Being able to explain things to the public would be an added bonus!

    I think dumping a math class or two in undergrad and substitute some science writing classes would go a long way to prepare people for the real work they’ll face.

    Congrats, by the way. Getting published in Science is a real honor.

  9. #9 Bob O'H
    April 6, 2007

    Chris – I doubt anyone will tell you not to email copies out. Everybody does it anyway: it’s replaced the old system of reprints. Now, if you were a real scientist, you would know this. 🙂

    I like the article, too: it makes a change to see some simple, positive advice. Now all I need is a picture to put in my frame…


  10. #10 Louis
    April 6, 2007

    Hi Chris,

    I’d appreciate a pdf of the article if you could email me one please. My workplace doesn’t have a subscription to Science, pretty much everything else, just not Science. Corporate libraries can be fickle!



  11. #11 Tom Hager
    April 8, 2007

    Linus Pauling ran into the issue 1950s-style (when the big topic was the spread of nuclear weapons), and solved it after his wife critiqued his public speeches, told him they were too technical, and got him to adopt a more impassioned tone when railing against nuclear proliferation. He went on win the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps more important than communication skills is the question of the proper role of scientists in public debate at all; this is a complex issue with roots going back to what it means to be a scientist. As one WWII-era politician put it, there is a widespread view that scientists should be “on tap, not on top.” Please email me the piece.

  12. #12 ponderingfool
    April 10, 2007

    The problem with your approach is that you are attacking the symptom not the actual disease itself. In fact the approach of “framing” that you outline while being able to win the particular battles you mention, you may end up feeding the very problem that is at the root of it all. You don’t dig deeper as to why people might not be well informed/motivated. Or as to why many scientists are not good at communicating. You really aren’t arguing to change the world but to change the scientists. Is that really going to work without changing the system?

    Scientists are selected for by a system in which those who demonstrate they are really passionate about science relative to other facets of life are encouraged to keep going. It is a process that favors those who endure. Those who are likely to endure are usually those that deal with the least BS in society as a whole (i.e. white males).

    Those in science are not selected for their ability to teach. In fact those passionate about teaching are usually discouraged in those passions to focus on their “research”. For the most part scientists are not taught how to teach but stumble through teaching. The ability to teach is a critical piece that is missing.

    You can’t just expect scientists to be able to effectively communicate or “frame” or whatever jargon you want to use just like that. Most of them are not naturally skilled at it nor are they trained to do that. More importantly most of them do not have the time. More and more universities are being run like corporations. Duties the university used to handle and pay for are shifting to the principle investigators and their labs to handle. Grants are taking up more time. How do you plan on freeing up resources and time for these scientists to learn to “frame” properly?

    Longer term if you really want better communicators in science you will have to select for a different set of people to get PhDs in the sciences than those who endure the system. To maximize framing lots needs to be changed in society.

    Of course how do you do that? Those that can communicate need to step up and push which does require framing.

    Really reading much of the debate about “framing” comes down to pragmatists vs. idealists or put in another way liberals vs. revolutionaries. Those that work within the system vs. those who want to change the system outright.

    Both are needed for even small change to occur. Those who are calling out against framing will keep the “framers” honest. The danger in framing and de-emphaszing the details is feeding a society of sound-bites; a society without real discussion and thought which is the greatest threat to science. People should be engaging and informed enough to be skeptics. Our society does not allow that (between poor education, long commutes, exhausted after work, etc) but it is something we should be fighting for.

    What is interesting is that the piece on framing is not framed very well. It is framed towards those who are pragmatists to begin with, not the idealists. It does not reach out and engage the latter group. I have yet to read a post that does frame things well. Everyone seems to keep in their own safe frame about frames.

  13. #13 David Smith
    April 12, 2007

    When scientists move from developing “technical knowledge” to “driving decision-making”, don’t they stop acting as scientists and begin acting as lobbyists or politicians? Scientists with the academic qualifications to fulfill those roles are likely to already have the kind of communication training that you describe.

    Mightn’t it be best if scientists who aren’t qualified to be politicians or lobbyists stuck to developing “technical knowledge”? Or, at least recognize that they are functioning outside their area of competence?

  14. #14 Claudius Denk
    April 24, 2007

    What you are basically saying is that scientists should avoid science and stick to the propaganda. Don’t mince words. This is your message.

  15. #15 herbaqu
    January 22, 2009

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