Monday, April 09, 2007

Frame Your Science or Have it Framed

Update: Tuesday, April 10, 2007, 7:48 a.m.: Persuaders quotations added.

A few weeks ago, the Texas Tech college of mass communications faculty sat around a room talking with heads of media industries. The question was asked, "How often do you read our research in academic journals?"

The answer was never.

This is a problem. And if it is a problem with mass communications, it must be an even worse problem with more traditional sciences.

If you were to pick up the latest issue of a communications journal, you could probably read it and make some sense of it. If you're not a scientist, you might get a bit lost on the methodological detail. But you could probably learn how to make a better advertisement.

But you don't.

And we don't encourage you. As public scholars, most of us fail completely.

The problem is intensified with controversial topics, such as global warming, evolution, and genetically modified food products. In these areas, politicians, pundits, and a vast array of non-scientists have an agenda to push.

They do not want to do science. They want to sway public opinion. They want to do it quickly. And you're never going to do that with a long lecture of the science behind it all. Like the introductory textbook, they want a simple metaphor or exemplar. They want something simple.

"My grandfather was not a monkey," you might hear.

Sure it oversimplifies everything and misses the scientific point, but it resonates.

Sometimes rather than an exemplar, politicians and pundits might try to frame the way in which an argument is discussed. GOP researcher Frank Luntz helped renamed "global warming" as "climate change" for a large chunk of the Republican party. Here is an expert from the Frontline documentary, "The Persuaders."

FRANK LUNTZ: Look, for years, political people and lawyers – who, by the way are the worst communicators – used the phrase "estate tax." And for years, they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it because the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a death tax because you're taxed at death. And suddenly, something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It's the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I'd argue that is a clarification, it's not an obfuscation.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Luntz has admonished Republican politicians to talk about "tax relief" instead of "tax cuts," and to replace the "war in Iraq" with the "war on terror." He once told his party to speak of "climate change," not "global warming."

FRANK LUNTZ: What is the difference? It is climate change. Some people call it global warming, some people call it climate change. What is the difference?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It apparently made enough difference to Republicans that they began to use "climate change" almost exclusively.

Sen. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK): –cause global – cause climate change.

SPENCER ABRAHAM, Secretary of Energy: –the President's global climate change initiative–

Vice Pres. DICK CHENEY: –climate change research–

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: –and we must address the issue of global climate change.

What is a scientist to do? My former colleague, Matt Nisbet, studies this area, and this week came out with a bold agenda for scientists in the journal Science with science writer Chris Mooney.

"In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own," Nisbet and Mooney write.

There are important implications in scientists stepping away from the proverbial microscope and into the policy arena. However, as Nisbet and Mooney point out, sticking to the facts might end in a lost battle to defend their science.

Public science is a part of science, and science plays an increasingly important role in society. Scientists who hide in the ivory tower and allow others to frame their ideas may have honor on their sides, but they will have few voters or their government funding on their sides.

Read a Weblog-based discussion of this issue on Nisbet's blog.

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Blogger Michael Tobis said...

Good stuff on the whole, but..

Your claim that Frank Luntz reframed "global warming" as "climate change" is simply wrong. "Global warming" has a narrow technical meaning as well as a broad semiotic one, and people who like to muddy the waters happily swing back and forth from one to the other.

When a scientist says global warming, he or she means exactly "an increasing trend in global mean surface temperature". Well, we've got one, and that's the most reliable prediction in climate change, but climate change is really the problem.

It's to solve the glaring miscommunication between science and the public that I advocate not using the expression "global warming" at all. I'm afraid it's a lost cause, but if you want to see my reasoning, check out my feature article at realclimate on the subject.

Also I have been thinking about these framing matters on my blog and would welcome your opinons.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

I will check this out.

In the meantime, I have clarified the Luntz comments.

7:43 AM  

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