A piece in The Observatory last week lamented the fact that Rajenda Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was recently obliged to speak as a “human being” rather than as a scientist when recommending a specific target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The column suggested this duality of opinion was a shortcoming among scientists that needed fixing.
But that view is unfair because it ignores the role that most scientists have traditionally played—and should play—in public policy.
The column argued that scientists should do better job of explaining their science and that a soon-to-be-released paper (pdf) by scholar Matt Nisbet adds weight to that argument. While I count Nisbet as a colleague and friend, that doesn’t mean we often agree.
The highly respected assistant professor of communications at American University has spent recent years promoting one idea—“Framing Science.” Nisbet, along with other opinion leaders, have called for researchers to adopt this new way of explaining their science, and for an increase in the number of scientists actually trying to communicate with the public.
Too few scientists are speaking out publicly and those who do aren’t very good at it, these leaders say.
But that doesn’t jive well with a new study by University of Wisconsin researchers, in the current issue of the journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. The study asked active and productive stem-cell researchers and epidemiologists about their own interactions with the media, their interest in entering the public debate, and their attitudes about communicating their science.
Of the more than 1,200 scientists who responded, nearly two-thirds said that they had interacted with journalists on science stories, therefore showing a willingness to take on science communication. But the paper’s authors also pointed out that the percentages differed little from similar studies done in the 1980s and 1990s.
When deciding whether or not to enter a science policy debate, the study found, researchers still worry that getting involved—or taking sides, as it were—could provoke criticism from their peers and compromise the perception of objectivity that is so import to scientific inquiry. That concern thwarts the “framing science” approach Nisbet and others have proposed.
The basic notion of framing, as I understand it, is that to effectively communicate information to an audience of readers, viewers or listeners, one has to tailor the message so that it corresponds to audience interests. These “frames,” as they’re called, are the architecture by which information is conveyed, the structure around which facts and context are built.
In essence, the teller of the tale determines the best path along which to lead the audience. Nisbet calls it “framing”—I call it “journalism,” but regardless of the vocabulary, simple semantics is not what divides us.
Central to his argument supporting framing is that this approach offers the best chance that readers/viewers/listeners will arrive at the “right” place at the end of the path. Thus, the communicator has a clear and specific goal in mind when he or she starts. But journalists and scientists, I was taught, should only inform—convincing, persuading, and marketing were simply not part of the job.
Nisbet argues that all communicators—even journalists-are selective in what information they impart, what’s included and excluded along the way. He’s right, of course, but in the case of journalists—the good ones at least—those choices aren’t made to sway the audience. They’re made to improve the storytelling.
Intent, it would seem, is where we part ways.
As a scholar who concentrates on communicating public policy, Nisbet’s focus logically centers on how best to impart information that supports or opposes an idea or cause. The complexity of modern science and its relevance to an ever-wider field of public policy issues have exacerbated this challenge and enhanced the need for high-quality science communications. Climate change, genetically modified crops, stem cell research, and evolution versus “intelligent design” are all issues that routinely confuse and worry the general public.
Traditionally, most scientists and researchers have assiduously avoided such debates, in part because there are few actual positive rewards in their scientific culture for speaking out, but also because of a historic cultural norm that doing so is something scientists “simply don’t do.”