Fellow SciBloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet have a short essay in this week’s Science that says scientists need to adopt the “framing” strategy that right-wing propagandists have been so successful with over the past couple of decades — if science is ever to trump the neo-conservative claptrap that infects global warming and evolution debates, among other important public policy issues. It’s generating a lot of attention in these parts of the blogosphere and throughout the scientific community, I expect. Subscribers can read the whole thing but the publicly accessible one-line summary is pretty much all you need to know: “To engage diverse publics, scientists must focus on ways to make complex topics personally relevant.” I, and others, interpret this as: Don’t be afraid to dumb it down.
Chris and Matt might not like that oversimplification of their argument, but after all, they’re arguing in favor of not getting too anal-retentive about the facts and details, and replacing them with something that resonates, emotionally, with audiences, so they really can’t complain when I do the same thing with their case.
“Frames” say Matt and Chris,
pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done
…scientists must realize that 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.
First, there’s some extraordinarily astute and comprehensive discussions responding to the paper. Among my favorites are those on Bora’s Blog Around the Clock, Carl’s Loom and PZ’s Pharygula. It’s not easy to come up with something original to say after all that. But I’m going to make a stab.
Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist. To be a great scientist requires enormous sacrifice and years of focusing on those very details that our framing enthusiasts would so readily discard. To tell them “Oh, and by the way, in addition to knowing your own field backwards and forwards, and being a good people manager, and writing killer grant applications, you also have to be a master of rhetoric, well-skilled in crafting public PowerPoint/Keynote presentations, and be completely up-to-speed on the latest political hot-button issues,” is just plain cruel. Yes, it’s wonderful when you stumble across an accomplished Renaissance scientist with the ability to make clear what was until then obscure and arcane. But these people would be on the endangered species list if they’re weren’t human.
Indeed, the job of making science relevant has already been taken, by science journalists.
You might accuse me of a little conflict-of-interest here, because I am one of those science journalists. I’m not the best science journalist who ever lived, but I have gone to the trouble of getting a degree in science (biology), and I like to think that there is a role for those of us who straddle the two cultures. It is our job to dumb things down — just enough to make science interesting (fascinating, if we’re very good) to the public, but still faithful enough to the science not to corrupt the essential message.
“Framing,” if I may be so blunt, sounds to me like just another faddish term for knowing how to tell a good story. The right-wing elements of American society have been quite successful at telling their story for a while. Now it’s time for the rest of us to tell ours. That much of the Nisbet/Mooney argument I embrace wholeheartedly. I just don’t think there’s anything particularly revolutionary or new about it.
Most importantly, however, we have to remember not to get carried away with the tools of rhetoric. In our zeal to tell our story, we have to stop short of making stuff up (which is what the other guys are so good at). So, yes, leave out some of the detail in order to get the point across. But
1. Why not leave the job primarily to those who are already trained to do it instead of asking already over-tasked scientists to take on the responsibilty?
2. Remember that respect for the truth is what defines the scientific perspective, and separates us from neo-conservative, fundamentalist, authoritarian types we all love to hate.