Just the Facts, and Opinions Too

Framing science in a fragmented media world

Scientists must do a better job making their research understandable and meaningful to the press and the public, even if that means downplaying the technical details and emphasizing its social relevance. This is especially crucial in the run up to the 2008 presidential election, as reporters and voters will need help in determining whether policy proposals on issues such as global warming and stem cell research are based on sound science.

That was the gist of a talk last night at the New York Academy of Sciences in lower Manhattan by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet. Mooney is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Seed magazine and the author of The Republican War on Science. Nisbet is a professor at American University who blogs about the communication of science and “framing” issues. The title of their talk was, “Framing Science: the Road to 2008 and Beyond.”

Mooney and Nisbet’s argument—that scientists must rise to the challenge of a Republican administration that has “changed the rules of the game” by attacking scientific credibility with selective “frames,” or distilled meanings and messages—has met considerable resistance. A number of scientists have charged that Mooney and Nisbet are asking them to spin their research results. Others have argued that scientific integrity depends on strict adherence to the facts, and that any departure into the world of opinion or advocacy will weaken that integrity.

[Full disclosure: Mooney wrote about conservatives and science for CJR in the November/December 2004 issue, and he and Nisbet wrote about Intelligent Design in CJR’s September/October 2005 issue.]

Nisbet and Mooney introduced their argument in an essay in the journal Science in early April. When that touched off a heated debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere, the authors followed up with an explicative op-ed in The Washington Post. Now, they are pushing forward with the current speaking tour, dubbed “Speaking Science 2.0.”

It does take some time, thought, and a few questions to understand the full reasoning behind Mooney and Nisbet’s ideas, but they mean well. “In no way, shape or form, should any of our recommendations be taken to suggest that scientists should in some way mislead,” Mooney told me after Monday’s talk. “Reframing is not the same as spinning, and we want to make that very clear.” And indeed, the two also appreciate the risks inherent in scientists’ attempts to explain the import of their work by using messages that contain opinion as well as fact. “In the wrong hands, framing can be used for very bad purposes,” Nisbet told the audience of about 100 people. By way of example, the speakers offered the case of intelligent design and attacks on teaching evolution in public schools that were couched in the teach-the-controversy frame by young-Earth creationists.

It is exactly because of such historic challenges to scientific knowledge that Mooney and Nisbet think effective translation and explanation of science are “more crucial than ever.” Furthermore, they argue, the “fragmented” nature of modern media makes it all the more necessary for scientists to step up and assume the role of arbiters. Faced with “a torrent” of news outlets to choose from in print, broadcast, and online, consumers face a “problem of choice,” Nisbet told the audience. People do not use the press like some scientists might hope, he explained, sifting alternative and competing accounts of issues to make up their minds. Instead, individuals will choose a single news source whose coverage matches their own predispositions and conceptions. The problem, Nisbet said, is that “if you lack a preference for public affairs information, or science-related information, you can easily select yourself out of that audience.” Therefore, scientists, and especially scientific institutions (such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes for Health) must engage in a more meaningful and expansive discourse with the public about pertinent research. They should also do more to inform public policy.

“I don’t think scientists can stay out of politics. I don’t think scientists should stay out of politics,” Mooney said told the audience.

Since he and Nisbet published their essay in Science, however, such statements have been the source of some confusion. Mooney and Nisbet recognize that there are limits to what scientists can say and do without crossing ethical boundaries, and these are often defined by expressing the need for a policy rather than a particular policy.

But this important distinction has not been entirely clear in their writings or talks. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan who attended Monday’s talk, said that scientists do not have all the expertise—economic, for instance—that must be melded with scientific information to create specific policies.

“Advocacy in its widest sense—better science education, more funding for NSF and NIH, a more sensible way of getting information to policy makers—those are things that most scientists would advocate for on the drop of a hat,” Schmidt said. “[Mooney and Nisbet] would have an easier time if they more clearly delineated between the policies that the scientific community, as a whole, can support, and those for which scientists might advocate as individuals.” The debate about scientists as policy advocates is a story of many triumphs and mistakes, which “dates back to time immemorial,” Schmidt added. Nonetheless, he is impressed with the “freshness” that Mooney and Nisbet have been able to instill.

During their talk, Mooney and Nisbet offered three case studies—global warming, stem cells and evolution—to introduce and explain various “frames” and their effectiveness. Each of these issues has faced serious opposition from political, social, and economic conservatives. Skeptics have attacked global warming by latching onto the “uncertainty frame” of climate science, Mooney said, but responding with a litany of facts and technical details is “a trap.” Instead, Nisbet urged scientists to frame the debate in terms of “environmental stewardship” and “responsibility,” things that the Evangelical community has used to connect its typically conservative congregants to what has traditionally been viewed as a liberal issue.

The “economic development frame” is making business leaders more receptive to warnings about global warming and the need for renewable fuels. Other successful messages, according to Mooney and Nisbet, include the “social progress and accountability frames” used by stem cell researchers to counter the “morality frame.”

Done responsibly and with intellectual honesty, reframing neither spins the science nor threatens its integrity, Mooney and Nisbet insist; the key, however, is a cadre of well-spoken scientists who are able to communicate with politicians, the press, and pubic.

Schmidt agrees; after all, journalists also use frames (except we call them angles) to boil down complicated topics into 800-word stories. “One of the things that I’ve urged scientists to do … is to be responsible for how your results are spun in the media,” he said.

Nonetheless, some still fear that once scientists become proactive in delivering and explaining the social relevance and implications of their work, their credibility will suffer. “Aren’t you turning scientists into ideologues?” one man asked after the talk. But Mooney and Nisbet reiterated their belief that even when science is “reframed,” its practitioners should not misrepresent reality. Facts must inform opinions, Mooney said, but “the facts don’t speak for themselves.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.