Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Framing science (Part I)...

Dr. Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney wrote a piece on Framing Science that has appeared in the latest issue of Science. Nisbet is a professor of communications at American University while Mooney is a science writer. Its message is that scientists need to frame their work. How?
"Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames 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."

One of their examples is Evangelical leaders framing "climate change as a matter of religious morality". They really don't go further in the piece. In fact that is my major criticism of the entire article. It is very general and fluff. The take away I got from it was that scientists need to know their audiences and not drown people with technical details. Ok, not exactly revolutionary. It is teaching or communication 101. Of course what are the technical details that should be left out? No answer is given. How should scientists be going about framing?

Nisbet argues on his blog in response to Dr. Myers question what about those pushing to break the frames:
"investments in formal science education and traditional science media remain important as long term strategies, since these initiatives will hopefully sponsor generational gains in citizen knowledge (and maybe actually change world views.) But PZ's hoped for revolution won't happen over night. Indeed, in the contentious policy debates that take place over the next election cycle or decade, scientists must learn to focus on "framing" their messages in ways that resonate with Americans' existing world views.

More than 80% of Americans believe in God and going to church remains the most popular of American volunteer activities. As a result, with many members of the public, communicating on issues like climate change or evolution means developing messages that resonate with, or at least complement, their religious identities."

In other words it is don't be a revolutionary, be a liberal. I can agree with being incremental in the short-term with longer-term goals. Revolution is rare and minor improvements now are still improvements; the threat of one though tends to push incremental changes to occur. The problem is when you start going for short term "wins" makes it harder for true change in society which is what I am afraid to say is what Nisbet is advocating for:

"That's the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual's social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It's definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it's how things work in society."

In my mind playing into "how things work in society" is to the detriment of science. As a scientist why do I want to enable people not thinking? Why would I want to be directly party to undermining my life's work? Science is a process to understand how the universe works that asks us not to accept the word of an authority figure but to question authority. Given the current Bush administration, haven't we learned that not questioning authority is dangerous? Shouldn't we be discouraging people from making up "their minds in the absence of knowledge"?

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