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.
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.)