Thursday, April 05, 2007

How to Communicate Science

 
EurekAlert has posted a short press release from an unknown source concerning an upcoming article that's about to be published in Science magazine [Scientists must improve communication tactics, Science article proclaims].

The article is by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet and it concerns science communication. Here's what the press release says about the authors.
Mooney is a regular columnist for Seed, covering the intersection of science and politics. His blog, “The Intersection”, is a part of the ScienceBlogs network, a Seed Media Group venture. He is the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming (Harcourt, July 2007).

Dr. Nisbet contributes the “Framing Science” blog to the ScienceBlogs network. He is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. His research focuses on the intersections between science, media and politics, and he is the author or co-author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies in the area.

Seed Media Group is a leading science media and communications company. Headquartered in New York, with correspondents across the globe, Seed Media Group’s brands include the critically acclaimed science magazine Seed, and ScienceBlogs, the leading digital community dedicated to science. For more information, please visit www.seedmediagroup.com.
I enjoy reading Chris' blog and I think he does a good job of explaining some aspects of science. However, I must admit to being a little bit nervous when non-scientists tell me how to write about science. I don't see overwhelming evidence that non-scientists are doing a good job ... with some notable exceptions.

I'm also disturbed about the emphasis on Seed Media Group. I'll wait until I see the actual article—it isn't available yet—but I'll be surprised if Mooney and Nisbet list their affiliation as "Seed Media Group." What do the ScienceBlog bloggers say about this? Do you see yourselves as employees or representatives of Seed Media Group?

Here's what the press release says about their article.
“In writing this article together, we argue that scientists shouldn’t exclusively blame politicians and journalists for gridlock on issues like climate change,” says Mooney. “Part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication.”

The authors point out that when scientists discuss science-related policy questions in technical language, many members of the public tune it out. Moreover, even while continuing to employ traditional modes of communication, scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal. Scientists can improve their communication skills by applying research on “framing” and other work in the social sciences. As the article puts it, “Frames organize central ideas in a debate, defining a controversy so that it will resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis than others. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible and what should be done.”

“Our suggestions should not be confused with spin; rather, we are advocating the conscious adoption of more effective (and thus, more informative) communication techniques,” said Dr. Nisbet. “Already, influential sectors of the scientific community are beginning to realize that new public engagement strategies are desperately needed.”
That's one way of looking at it. However, I prefer not to hide my atheism and my liberal viewpoint under a bushel. I don't know what "framing" is—and reading the blog isn't much help—but it sounds an awful lot like spin to me.

I think I'll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Peter Medawar, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould. They're scientists who, in my opinion, communicate pretty effectively and they attracted lots of readers. They didn't have to disguise their atheism or their liberalism in order to get a point across. I don't think they took lessons on "framing."

Chris Mooney [I Have a Paper in Science] and Matt Nisbet [At the journal Science] have already blogged about the upcoming article. Let the debate begin!

19 comments:

  1. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for your thoughtful entry. I hope to have more to say, but first, let me clarify something. I'm the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine so it's quite natural for Seed Media Group to do a press release about my article in Science. Matthew Nisbet is a professor at American University; he's also a blogger on the ScienceBlogs site, a Seed venture. But he is not an employee of Seed; neither are the other ScienceBloggers; only I am. So I think you're misinterpreting this press release.
    chris mooney

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  2. Chris,

    I wasn't misinterpreting the press release. It implied some sort of connection between your role as SEED correspondant in Washington and your article in Science.

    I publish textbooks with Peason/Prentice Hall but I sure wouldn't exect them to issue a press release—where the publisher is prominently mentioned—every time I got a paper in a scientific journal. What's the difference?

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  3. I suggest that you're fuzzing up a few things here. You're a working biochemist (I assume, but if the specialty isn't quite accurate, it doesn't change the point) - are you talking about you writing about biochemistry? or you writing about a topic in some other branch of science? or someone like a Carl Zimmer writing about a biochemistry topic?

    I think I'll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Peter Medawar, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould. They're scientists who, in my opinion, communicate pretty effectively and they attracted lots of readers.

    Pretty mixed bag, I'd say. Asimov wrote considerable "popular science" at a sort of an introductory level, but as I recall, very little of it was related to any experience as a working scientist (of which I'm not aware he had much at all in any event). I'd call him a "writer;" classifying him as a scientist seems a stretch to me. At the other extreme, Dawkins sticks pretty closely to his own field for the most part, but I don't see him as any sort of writing model. It seems to me that something like "Climbing Mount Improbable" succeeds in spite of a pretty clunky writing style.

    In my opinion, some of the others are good writers (as opposed to someone who has good things to write about). But even Gould, in later years particularly, could have gotten considerable benefit from listening to a good editor. I've not read much of Lewontin or Crick, but Sagan/Medawar/Gould are the only ones whose popular writing I'd call "graceful."

    And I'm puzzled by your reluctance to take advice from a non-scientist. I would have thought that a scientist would be quite accustomed to taking expert input in any necessary area that went beyond his own expertise.

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  4. ...for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal.

    Has PZ Myers, also a ScienceBlogger, seen this yet? I think he has a button or two with labels like this on him, just waiting to get pushed.

    Scott said: I would have thought that a scientist would be quite accustomed to taking expert input in any necessary area that went beyond his own expertise.

    I would also think scientists are quite accustomed to such input. But I fail to see how a professional journalist who is not a scientist has any expert advice to offer about communicating science to the public. Communicating to the public, yes. Communicating the results of one's own scientific research, not so much.

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  5. Larry,
    It's standard for a research institution to issue a press release when one of its scientists has an article in Science. In this case, a magazine has done it when one of its staff has an article. Again, I don't see the issue.

    In any event, I would submit that scientists can learn from non-scientists in a variety of areas--but in this case, my co-author, Matthew Nisbet, is himself a scientist--a social scientist who studies communication. And that's exactly what we're writing on.

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  6. TheBrummell:

    But I fail to see how a professional journalist who is not a scientist has any expert advice to offer about communicating science to the public. Communicating to the public, yes. Communicating the results of one's own scientific research, not so much.

    Guess we'll just have to disagree on this point. It seems blatantly obvious to me that if you need expertise in communicating, you go to someone with that sort of expertise. It might be a bonus if they know something about your field, but I can't see that it's essential.

    I have only one bit of personal experience, and was on an IT topic rather than a scientific topic. A while back, I worked with a journalist to help me with some material for fairly wide distribution to a mixed audience. She knew essentially nothing about the stuff being communicated, but the material became much more effective as a result of her expertise.

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  7. Thanks Larry for feedback, and I appreciate the other comments. Here is a quick response, and I hope to weigh in with more:

    Dawkins et al. are great at explaining science to science enthusiasts, but don't really go beyond that small audience. In fact, Dawkins' attacks on religion end up alienating an important swing public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools. He's the Hilary Clinton of science; rallying both bases, generating misleading "science vs. religion" coverage in the press, and feeding more polarization. --Matt Nisbet

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  8. A lot of liberal bloggers dismiss framing as "spin" or "marketing" or "Orwellian" because they do not know what it is about. Now, George Lakoff may be wrong about the underlying neuro-psych of framing, but he correctly describes them and corectly desribes how they work. They are not MEANT for the audience on your side (in politics, religion, science, whatever) and they cannot sway your extreme ideological opposites, but they are targeting the grey middle - bi-conceptuals: people who harbor embryonic versions of both frames of mind, and have no particular interest in the topic (too busy with day-to-day life). In such, people, it is important to supress wrong frames and stimulate correct frames of mind. They need not know any details of your science (or politics, ideology, religion, a 30-point healthcare plan) - they only need to know that they agree with you and to vote the right way when the time comes.

    People who do not grok this (see, "Democratic Party") are bound to loose on every topic because the other side, lacking the truth, has developed framing into an art and science on its own and has made great victories over the past 30 years or so by using framing instead of tellin anything to anybodyu about any susbtance of what they stand for.

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  9. "scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication.”

    I think that is an overly broad generalization.

    I was trained as a scientist and taught science in the schools for several years and have met lots of scientists and science teachers over the years who are very good at conveying science in terms that are relevant and meaningful to members of the public.

    I'd have to say that for someone who claims to be an expert on "framing", Nisbett has made a poor start if he is trying to open a dialog with scientists about their own communication skills.

    Such broad generalizations/criticisms are likely to alienate the very crowd he is trying to reach.

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  10. Thanks to everyone for the comments, Matt Nisbet and I are glad this has sparked a healthy debate, and we'll be responding in more detail soon. In the meantime, the Science piece can be accessed here, at least for those who have a password

    The argument is firmly grounded in the social science literature on how people use the media to make up their minds on complex issues. I hope you will all give it a read before you make up your minds about our argument ;>

    Chris Mooney

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  11. Asimov wrote considerable "popular science" at a sort of an introductory level, but as I recall, very little of it was related to any experience as a working scientist (of which I'm not aware he had much at all in any event). I'd call him a "writer;" classifying him as a scientist seems a stretch to me.

    Asimov joined Boston University medical school faculty as a professor of biochemistry sometime in the 1950s. I don't recall exactly when he received tenure, but it was before his position became a non-teaching position in 1968. That was when he gave up teaching and research to focus on his writing.
    His peers described him as an average scientist (I believe Asimov himself used the word 'mediocre', though). So, he wasn't at the top of his field, like Gould or Dawkins, but he was nonetheless a scientist. At least until 1968.

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  12. ...the material became much more effective as a result of her expertise.

    How is that measured? Ideas about 'swing voters' and 'undecided' people are tossed around ad libitum, but are there any data about such people for any field? How does one quantify the "effectiveness" of a given presentation of information? If one measures the difference between (for example) actual votes for a particular candidate and poll results prior to an important debate, where is the control for that experiment - how does one know which votes would have been cast without the influence of an individual speech?

    It's called "Political Science", and I honestly believe that people who conduct it do (on occasion) science. But I've never seen the gritty details of that conduct to really convince me that science is happening.

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  13. I'm willing to listen when these guys offer constructive suggestions on how to better communicate to the public, but I think they crossed the line in a few places where they try to tell us what to communicate (yes, thebrummel, my buttons were pushed). When they suggest that scientists are communicating poorly when we offend the public, they're missing the point: sometimes we want to offend. In particular, I think what they are requesting is a passive, socially conformist science.

    It completely misses the subversive and radical nature of science, and the ornery personalities of those who are bold enough to leave the lab bench and engage the public.

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  14. A debate about communicating science and how media communicates science is of course important. But it is also broad, so it is hard to to do it without some iterations. This will be my first try.

    First, the meta-debate. This is a debate on communication, so it will be subject to framing and spin as well. The blog "Framing Science" has an agenda, but it is not certain its framing suits the whole issue.

    We have at least four elements in the blogosphere on science: science blogs, scientists, science and social issues. If the purpose is to suggest that social framing as essential for communication of science in social issues, it is something many posts may want to have.

    But science can and have been communicated as science, with a "science frame" if you will, when that is appropriate. As Anonymous notes, scientists are often good communicators of science. Moran is one of them, as his blog and posts here shows.

    ...

    Framing or spin? I'm not sure, but framing seems to mean to offer a context, often implicitly taken to mean social, that suits certain reader groups. The message is presented within the frame. Spin would seem to imply to distort the message to suit the purpose, for example by leaving out existing data.

    ...

    Second, the use of social framing. Yes, it could be beneficial for scientists to suggest frames in areas where it is a political debate. As Pielke says on Cosmic Log "This is exactly how humans filter information".

    But I don't think scientists must use these frames except when they want to contribute directly to such debates within the chosen frame. Of course, it should be important for scientists to influence how science is discussed and used.

    ...

    Hmm, seems like I reasoned towards a position quite like business as usual but possibly with more socially engaged scientists. But blogging and other new media will diversify both debates and how they are done. Frames are important here, as is scientist participation.

    ...

    "scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal."

    Maybe I'm too sensitive due to recent discussions, but I'm reacting to this myself. Is this a spin ;-) to take a swipe towards certain interest groups? What is wrong with any of those characteristics?

    In Nisbet's response to this post he continues on this seemingly OT theme: "Dawkins et al. are great at explaining science to science enthusiasts, but don't really go beyond that small audience. In fact, Dawkins' attacks on religion end up alienating an important swing public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools."

    That is one way of framing Dawkins methods. :-) Another is to note that Dawkins has moved one extreme of the debate. This has made it possible for a larger audience to engage in it. Quite a larger one, in fact, and not only the myopically discussed US public.

    And I would like to see data on how Dawkins has influenced the US creationism debate, the swing public, and its importance for deciding school curricula. Until such time, this is more spin AFAIK.

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  15. I think it is worth noticing that what Dawkins, Harris etc. have done with their books is to move the debate about religion away from a purely theological debate, and into a more general debate about the actual merits of the religious claims.

    Dawkins has made the religious people defend the moderate stances in religion, and renounce the fundamentalistic stances. That would seem like something worthwhile, even if he doesn't get people convinced that religion is bunk.

    Similar, in science, it seems important to me to make clear that there is proper science, and there is non-proper science. Scientists should not try to be nice to people who not only hold views that can only be considered contrary to all science, but want those views to be taught as science.
    If the scientists are nice to such people, it makes the unknowing listener beleive that the truth is somewhere in between, which it is certainly not.

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  16. Framing, or even spinning, shouldn't be considered so very scarey. That's what you're doing every time you catch yourself about to write something that is sure to be distorted and quote-mined by creationists and change it so it can't be so easily miscontrued. It can be seen as pandering or dishonest, as most rightwing framing is, but doesn't need to be -- at its core is simply communicating in a way that is effective, clear, and not easily miscontrued. That's bad?

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  17. The concept of "framing" as used in the paper is totally misunderstood. The authors are fairly explicit as to where they get the concept, so it is clear what they are trying to do, but they have it totally wrong. It's at the level of embarrassingly wrong.

    See:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=667

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  18. Re: Greg Laden's criticism of our Policy Forum article, I replied with the following at his blog earlier today, though the comments have yet to appear. Here is part of what I posted:

    If you are looking for sources on how the fields of communication, political science, and sociology have developed framing as a theory of media influence, see the two citations that we reference in our Science commentary:

    Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

    Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

    Also, see the latest issue of Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. It's a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

    Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

    See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

    Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

    Part of what you are describing involves a disciplinary turf battle over the use of the social scientific term "framing." It would be useful to bring together linguists, anthropologists, communication researchers, sociologists, and political scientists to hash out some differing views, though to date, little of this has ever been done.

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  19. PZ said: "When they suggest that scientists are communicating poorly when we offend the public, they're missing the point: sometimes we want to offend."

    I'm reminded for some reason of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, for whom the local D.A. unsuccessfully sought murder convictions a number of times. In each case his attorney successfully framed his actions in terms of the law so that the jury returned an acquittal.

    Kevorkian thought his points about death with dignity, etc., were not being made with sufficient strength the way his attorney had framed them, so he determined to represent himself at the next murder trial. He was able to communicate with his audience in the way he wanted. And of course he was convicted.

    Since he's been jailed, do you recall as much public discussion about death with dignity? I certainly don't. So much for Kevorkian's goal, to say nothing of the loss of his freedom.

    While scientists may be the best judges of what they wish to communicate, they are not always the best judges of what the most effective means are of (a) communicating to their intended audiences; (b) communicating to the public at large; or (c) accomplishing a given public policy goal, e.g., prompting action against global warming or against the teaching of nonsense in science classes.

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