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At the journal Science, a Nisbet/Mooney focus on framing

I have a Policy Forum article appearing this week in the journal Science that is likely to spark a major debate. Co-authored with Chris Mooney and titled “Framing Science,” the themes covered will be familiar to readers of this blog.

In the piece, we respectfully argue that scientists shouldn’t blame politicians and journalists all the time for gridlock on issues like climate change, stem cell research, or evolution. Indeed, part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication.

More than sixty years of research in the social sciences suggests that something more than just always focusing on improving “science literacy” will be necessary to successfully engage the public. Given this challenge, scientists, without misrepresenting scientific information, must learn to shape or “frame” contentious issues in a way that make them personally relevant to diverse segments of the public, while taking advantage of the media platforms that reach these audiences.

In short, as unnatural as it might feel, sometimes the best way to communicate with the public is to avoid talking about the science and to go beyond traditional media outlets. In the article, we provide examples. Here’s a passage from our Science commentary that applies our argument on framing:

…as a debate over ‘intelligent design’ was launched, anti-evolutionists promoted ‘scientific uncertainty’ and ‘teach-the-controversy’ frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, ‘public accountability’ frames that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, ‘economic development’ frames that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and ‘social progress’ interpretations that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.

It’s likely that many will consider our article outright heresy, and prefer to just “stick to the facts” when it comes to public communication. Yet as we outline, once an issue becomes politicized and emerges as a partisan or religious debate, this strategy doesn’t work. Moreover, even as scientists remain “neutral communicators,” they come under increasing attack, with their authority and objectivity called into question.

The article derives from the research I have published over the past couple of years, and from thoughts accumulated at recent lectures I have given at venues in DC and other cities. Chris Mooney, as a science journalist and commentator, has arrived at similar observations.

Chris and I truly believe our message is urgent, since scientific topics will once again be pulled into the political crossfire in the context of the 2008 election.

So we are going on the road, making our argument in a number of upcoming multi-media lectures targeted towards the scientific community but also towards science advocates more generally. Some of these lectures in DC and New York are listed in the sidebar of my blog. Venues include the Center for American Progress, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the annual meetings of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Expect many more to be scheduled soon, hopefully at your campus or in your city.

See round up of blog reaction.


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