BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Competitive Enterprise Institute may be adapting to new scientific realities, but how about the scientists themselves? Not really, according to a short article in the current issue of Science magazine. In it, American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet and science journalist Chris Mooney argue that scientists have done a poor job of getting their message across, and that if they really want to convey the implications of their research they need to focus more on framing, recasting their message in terms the lay public can really relate to.
Climate change, says Nisbet, is a perfect example. Once it was an issue of not enough coverage, but now, he says, we have a different problem. MATTHEW NISBET: The problem is, is that when you actually look at the opinion polls, you have what I describe as a two Americas of public perceptions on the issue. Seventy-five percent of college-educated Democrats accept that human activities are contributing to climate change. On the other hand, only roughly a quarter of college-educated Republicans accept that science.
And so, what's going on here? It's because several Democratic leaders, like Al Gore, and even some scientists are really adopting what I call the catastrophe frame or the Pandora's Box frame, really focusing in on specific climate impacts that might be scary or frightening, such as the possibility of more intense hurricanes.
When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is just simply alarmism. It's very easy for the public, then, to simply rely on their partisanship to make up their minds, and that's why you have this two Americas of public perception. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's a political reality. But what is it that you're asking the scientists to do? How are they supposed to change the way they present it in order to confront this political reality? MATTHEW NISBET: You start recasting the issue in ways that are still true to the science but, in fact, actually you're not talking about the science. You're engaging with business leaders and CEOs. They're talking about the promise for innovative technology, again, the market potential for that. They might activate that moderate Republican base that reads The Wall Street Journal and says, hey, suddenly I care about global warming ‘cause there might be investment potential here.
You recast the issue as really a moral duty, not just in a religious sense but saying, look, this is like credit card debt. We're passing the buck on to future generations if you don't do something now. The science is there. This is an urgent problem. We need to take action. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're actually calling on scientists to become advocates or even activists. MATTHEW NISBET: Well, you know, I don't think it's politically controversial to say that the first thing is to activate interest, to activate concern, so that people can start paying attention to the science – to remain true to the science but recast it in a light that connects to their backgrounds. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it seems, you know, pretty easy to do it about climate change, where there is so much consensus, but what about issues where there isn't, nuclear energy, for instance, or cancer research? How can scientists effectively frame their findings when there's active disagreement among them over what the implications of the research are? MATTHEW NISBET: Sure. Two other really good examples on that front would be plant biotechnology and nanotechnology. Scientists still have some lingering disagreements about both the human safety and also the environmental safety of nanotech and areas of plant biotechnology.
The real danger there, for example, like an emerging technology, like nanotechnology, is that one frame gets locked in. And the frame that can always be locked in is this idea of a Pandora's Box, that somehow this Frankenstein's monster, this technology's out of control and it's going to lead to catastrophe somewhere down the road.
So scientists have to think carefully, how do we offer alternative interpretations that are true to the science but don't lead to some type of rash reaction from the public, that might unlock greater interest or greater understanding or actually motivate people to inform themselves about the science. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's been the reaction from scientists themselves to your paper? MATTHEW NISBET: Generally very positive. On the other hand, there's a small corner of the blogosphere, people that feel very intensely about the particular issue of teaching evolution. Many of them prefer sort of the Richard Dawkins school of communication. They believe that science, in kind of its absolute form, is the only way to communicate about the teaching of evolution, and, in fact, actually the scientific world view will eventually perhaps displace people's religious views.
And, unfortunately, that's a view that becomes very polarizing. In fact, it feeds into a norm that the media favors, and that's the conflict frame. It really feeds into this science versus religion frame, and you'll see magazine covers and news stories, you know, talking about science versus religion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when you get down to it, it's impossible for scientists to appeal to those who think that God created the Earth in seven days. MATTHEW NISBET: Well, certainly you're always going to have a certain segment of the public that hold to these very strong creationist views. On the other hand, you have a very important kind of swing public on this issue, people that are moderately religious who are actually from faith traditions where their religious leaders endorse the teaching of evolution in schools and don't see it in conflict with their religious beliefs.
But if somehow, through interpersonal conversation or they see something in the media about how this really boils down to a science versus religion issue and that really the teaching of evolution is really just about getting atheism into the schools, you're not going to win them over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you have advised Copernicus to advance his highly controversial and unpopular sun-centered theory of the solar system? MATTHEW NISBET: Well, again, you know, there are certain ideas that come about in science that clash so strongly against prevailing world views that any type of short-term communication effort is going to run up against a wall.
What I'm really talking about is on these short-term issues where there needs to be a policy decision made in the next five years, the next ten years, during the presidential election cycle, what's the best way to engage the public by way of the media? And certainly you can't get around the idea that framing is central to that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. MATTHEW NISBET: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Nisbet teaches at the American University School of Communication. We'll link to his Science magazine piece at onthemedia.org.