Why are basic scientific facts controversial in the public realm? What can scientists and their friends do to engage the public and move them past those misunderstandings?
Those are the questions motivating fellow ScienceBloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet as they tour the country giving a talk called “Speaking Science.” They kicked the tour off here in Kansas City, and they’ll be in New York tonight and on to places unknown after that. The talk is rooted in their controversial paper in Science and a subsequent op-ed in the Washington Post, both on the topic of framing science – presenting scientific topics to the general public.
There is a version of the talk given in Washington, DC available on Youtube, so you can see a version of the talk even if they won’t be in you neighborhood.
Mooney is a political journalist specializing in science and its political abuses, Nisbet is a professor studying public perception of science. Their different backgrounds give the talk a breadth than helps. Many of the slides themselves draw on Nisbet’s research, either from polling data or analyses of media attention to particular scientific issues. Mooney’s journalistic perspective helps give the talk a clear story line, and roots the different sections in current events. Like any tag-team presentation, the transitions between styles and personalities are visible as one finishes a section and hands the talk to the other, but not jarringly and not to the detriment of the presentation.
Mooney will be familiar to TfK readers as the author of The Republican War on Science, and this talk helps address the question many people, including yours truly, raised in reviews: What is to be done? How can scientists improve the role of accurate science in public discourse?
Nisbet and Mooney answer that scientists need to be more effective in speaking about our studies. Scientists are trained in knowledge creation, but receive relatively little training or support in knowledge translation or propagation. Journalists, policymakers and the general public not trained as scientists, nor do they necessarily want to be. As Nisbet explains, people are “cognitive misers,” and tend to skip presentations of information that they don’t realize they need to know.
In policy debates – such as those Nisbet and Mooney discuss: creationism, stem cells or global warming – the public tends not to have the background to assess scientific arguments, and can choose not to expend the effort needed to become educated on complex topics. I do this with particle physics, you may do this for art history or sports. Instead of investing effort to learn the details, we choose mental shortcuts – frames – to simplify our process of choosing sides. I became a Cubs fan not just because I was born in Chicago, but because I have an affinity for mammals. Many people dislike the Yankees not because they care about the players, but because of their perspectives on dynastic history.
This cognitive miserliness is entirely rational. Why invest the time needed to get a technical background in developmental biology necessary to evaluate the claims and counterclaims in the stem cell debate? Biologists need to do that, and it’s no hardship, since we are a self-selected group who already like biology. The general public doesn’t consist of people who enjoy learning about biology; investing time learning about stem cells would take valuable time away from more personally valuable pursuits, which would be irrational. They rely instead on “frames” that they developed in their daily lives and use as handy rules for evaluating new, complex new settings.
Nisbet and Mooney presented roughly 70 slides in about 45 minutes, which means too many slides or too little time. In the interest of simplicity, I’ll simply point out that in the controversies cited, the group that ultimately gained public support was not necessarily the side with the best data, but typically the one that successfully connected their argument to their audience.
How can scientists be more effective at connecting to audiences without sacrificing accuracy? The major critique offered to Nisbet and Mooney’s “framing science” argument is that it simply consists in “dumbing down” the science. I doubt that anyone actually thinks this is what Nisbet or Mooney would want, but many see no way to speak clearly without removing vital data.
Mooney and Nisbet suggest several political initiatives, from posthumously naming Carl Sagan to the National Academies of Science, boosting NSF funding for science communication, and increasing doctoral training for science communication, both in the sciences and in communications departments.
Beyond that, scientists can approach their public communications differently. One statistic cited in the talk was from a Pew poll on internet usage. Sixty percent of people who got science information from the internet found that information accidentally, by clicking a link from some other site they had intentionally sought out. This sort of “incidental contact” is a crucial way to provide scientific context for audiences. Television shows like House, E.R. or C.S.I. that refer to scientific issues in passing can generate public interest in an issue, and scientists can use exposure in those shows to move their own research and perspectives into the public discourse.
Many people get all their news coverage from local television news, and local TV reporters are unlikely to have scientific training. Scientists have to be prepared to seek out those reporters and offer them interesting stories and interesting perspectives on science. Doing so before a controversy emerges can help shape how people will perceive issues when a controversy arises, and provides the reporter with a list of scientists able and willing to talk about science publicly.
Journalists are cognitive misers also, and need some sort of news hook. If you can offer reporters some visual examples, that’s even better. Mooney and Nisbet pointed out that television and film are not themselves ideal ways to present complex data. Visual media are good ways to convey excitement and to illustrate complex examples. Once you’ve grabbed an audience’s attention in that setting, you can channel interested viewers to other resources for a more detailed account of the data.
Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is a good example of this strategy. The movie engaged the public, and a companion book and website provided additional context for people who wanted to get more engaged in the topic. That movie represents an additional strategy that can be very powerful – the use of public figures to attract attention. The California stem cell initiative passed in part because of a successful shift in framing (see the talk for details) and also because Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger used their public popularity to reach an audience that would not care what a scientist had to say on the issue. In Missouri, stem cell research advocates were boosted by support and powerful ads by Michael J. Fox; research opponents turned their campaign around by recruiting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
Being able to bring in allies who can effectively reach new audiences means reaching out to allies outside the scientific community. Just as journalists need a hook, so do celebrities and politicians. Those contacts need to be cultivated. Politicians, celebrities and journalists are trained in addressing the public, and the partnership between Mooney and Nisbet is one example of how effective and compelling the pairing of a scientist and a journalist can be.