Over the weekend, I attended a thought-provoking talk by journalist/author Chris Mooney and communications expert Matthew Nisbet on Speaking Science. The Seattle engagement was part of a national speaking tour and apparently they have stirred quite a debate in scientific circles. I just happened to hear about and attend the talk so it was all new to me.
The basic argument is this: (1) the science community inherently believes facts speak for themselves and that we just need to communicate them more clearly and more frequently (2) However extensive social science research shows that in reality (quoting Nisbet) “citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe”. He says that people don’t even tune into information that doesn’t fit their world view and therefore have no chance of being swayed by it. (3) Nisbet and Mooney believe that researchers should accept that truth and begin to consciously frame their research conclusions in terms that at minimum don’t alienate the audience and at best emphasize shared values. They call this “framing science.” There are tons of posts on the web about it and a quick google search will give you a much more comprehensive list than I could possible include here.
Sounds like good old-fashioned marketing to me. If you want people to buy your product – in this case knowledge – you have to frame your product in a way that pre-disposes them to accept it. And in a world where the media-savvy Christian right is seriously peddling the notion that “intelligent design” should be taught alongside evolution (Teach the Controversy!), we have to find a way to avoid rejection of scientific truths. (Yes, that’s a deliberately polarizing sentence and the talk covered a range of topics from intelligent design, to stem cell research, to global warming)
As Richard Gallagher says in his editorial in The Scientist this month,
“Surely all researchers would rather provide the framing for their own work than have Fox News do it for them.”
However, I think the scientists themselves are not the ones to embrace this idea. For one thing, it feels too much like “spin” to them, which is the polar opposite of the unbiased, objective truth they stand for. Equally importantly, I don’t think they’ll be very good at it. This is a very sophisticated communications challenge, for which most people (not just scientists) are ill-equipped. For scientists, a more realistic goal would be to show a little more humility and a little less arrogance towards people who don’t understand the science (Richard Dawkins I mean you).
As Mark Powell aptly puts it in his post about the “framing science” debate:
“Note to scientists: understanding evolution doesn’t confer superiority any more than a silky smooth jump shot.”
But as to the basic idea of framing scientific conclusions, I say bring on the pros. We need messaging people at least as good as those Discovery Institute folks to put the truth in its best light. We all have a lot riding on it.