Many people have accused me of misrepresenting the Nisbet & Mooney article in Science magazine (Science 6 April 2007: Vol. 316: p.56). So, let's step through it and see what we can learn.
Issues at the intersection of science and politics, such as climate change, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research, receive considerable public attention, which is likely to grow, especially in the United States as the 2008 presidential election heats up. Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively "frame" information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message (1). However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists', and controversy would subside.I believe that average citizens would be better off if they understood the science behind these controversial issues. As a scientist, I feel competent to explain the science. I also have opinions about things like evolution and embryonic stem cell research and I don't hesitate to proclaim those opinions. Since I'm a scientist, I tend to reason like a scientist. I don't have any great desire to learn how to reason any other way.
I do not believe that the controversy over evolution, for example, will subside when people learn the scientific truth about evolution. I don't recognize the strawman that Nisbet and Mooney have constructed. They say that "scientists must learn to actively "frame" information to make it relevant to different audiences." Let's see what they mean by that. I'm looking forward to seeing the evidence that they've done a better job than scientists of explaining scientific issues. Presumably that evidence is just coming up in the next paragraph.
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 (2). Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid (3).I'm well aware of the fact that many citizens do not think like a scientist. I did not "assume" otherwise. I don't know very many scientists who do. In most countries scientists are well-respected and when they say that something is a scientific fact they tend to get the benefit of the doubt. In other words, in those countries the primary source of information about science is scientists, not politicians and pastors. This doesn't seem to be true in America. I wonder what Nisbet & Mooney are proposing to do about it?
Still waiting for the evidence that Nisbet & Money have done a better job by paying attention to "framing."
Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done (4, 5).This sounds like psychobabble to me. It's a paragraph without content. It doesn't tell me a thing about what a "frame" is and how it might differ from what I've been doing all my life. It doesn't tell me what a "core value" is. It doesn't tell me why I should have to construct an argument that "resonates" with someone else's—possibly incorrect—assumptions. It also doesn't tell me why I should listen to Nisbet & Mooney.
Consider global climate change. With its successive assessment reports summarizing the scientific literature, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has steadily increased its confidence that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So if science alone drove public responses, we would expect increasing public confidence in the validity of the science, and decreasing political gridlock.Science alone does not drive public responses. Nobody believes that. However, it is the duty of scientists to faithfully report on the science, making sure they get it right. That's what scientists do.
It is the duty of scientists to report on the scientific consensus in a field. If there is no unanimity on an issue it is absolutely essential that a true scientist reveal the controversy as long as it's a legitimate scientific controversy. Hiding a scientific controversy for the sake of political gain is unethical. I hope that's not where they're going with this.
Despite recent media attention, however, many surveys show major partisan differences on the issue. A Pew survey conducted in January found that 23% of college-educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats (6). Regardless of party affiliation, most Americans rank global warming as less important than over a dozen other issues (6). Much of this reflects the efforts of political operatives and some Republican leaders who have emphasized the frames of either "scientific uncertainty" or "unfair economic burden" (7). In a counter-strategy, environmentalists and some Democratic leaders have framed global warming as a "Pandora's box" of catastrophe; this and news images of polar bears on shrinking ice floes and hurricane devastation have evoked charges of "alarmism" and further battles.That's an interesting bit of information on American politics. I'm not terribly interested but let's see where it's headed.
Recently, a coalition of Evangelical leaders have adopted a different strategy, framing the problem of climate change as a matter of religious morality. The business pages tout the economic opportunities from developing innovative technologies for climate change. Complaints about the Bush Administration's interference with communication of climate science have led to a "public accountability" frame that has helped move the issue away from uncertainty to political wrongdoing.Scientists have established that global warming has occurred and much of it is probably due to human activity. The question before us is what should we do about it? The action will depend to some extent on what are the predicted consequences of global warming. Scientists can play a role here by reporting on the various climate models and how reliable they are.
Many scientists have already decided that we should do something about global warming by cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions. Most of them reject the argument based on religious morality and most of them probably reject the argument based on "economic opportunities." If there's a point here, I'm not seeing it.
I assume there are some scientists who know about global warming and know that humans are contributing but who don't know whether we should do something about it. Nisbet & Mooney seem to be making an assumption about the opinion of all scientists.
BTW, I still haven't seen any evidence that these two authors have been more persuasive than the average scientist. I'm sure it's going to be mentioned very soon. It's pretty important, don't you think?
As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over "intelligent design" was launched, antievolutionists promoted "scientific uncertainty" and "teach-the-controversy" frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of "public accountability" that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, "economic development" that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and "social progress" that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.American scientists did not counter with "science-intensive" responses. Instead, for the most part they countered with legal arguments for keeping Intelligent Design Creationism out of the public schools. They let the Creationists set the agenda by fighting the battle in the courts where the Creationists could win even when they lose. Scientists turned the fight over to the lawyers.
I totally reject the argument that we should focus on the economic advantages of evolution over creationism on the grounds that it's something that the public will understand. I reject it because it is probably untrue and it's a cop-out. No respectable scientist will argue that evolution should be accepted over Intelligent Design Creationism because America will be more prosperous if citizens accept evolution.
The evolution issue also highlights another point: Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others' religious beliefs (8).Some religious beliefs deserve to be belittled and insulted. Is this just another argument for appeasement and so-called "tolerance" dressed up to look more intellectual?
Let's think strategically for a minute. The fight is between religion and science. Let's not forget that key point as we try to understand what Nisbet & Mooney are wanting us to do about it. The fight is not about whether belief in evolution offers better economic advantages. Even if that were true, the average Christian fundamentalist would not accept evolution. And if it turned out not to be true there would be very few scientists switching to Intelligent Design Creationism.
It sounds like we're getting close to learning how Nisbet & Mooney would handle this issue. I can't wait to see what they've done to advance the cause of evolution and defeat Intelligent Design Creationism. I'm sure they wouldn't be lecturing scientists on how to behave if they didn't have proof that their way is better.
On the embryonic stem cell issue, by comparison, patient advocates have delivered a focused message to the public, using "social progress" and "economic competitiveness" frames to argue that the research offers hope for millions of Americans. These messages have helped to drive up public support for funding between 2001 and 2005 (9, 10). However, opponents of increased government funding continue to frame the debate around the moral implications of research, arguing that scientists are "playing God" and destroying human life. Ideology and religion can screen out even dominant positive narratives about science, and reaching some segments of the public will remain a challenge (11).I can't figure this out. There are people who oppose embryonic stem cell research because God tells them it's wrong. What are we supposed to do about that? Do we understand and appreciate what they're saying and debate the issue of religion vs. science? Or do we try and convince them that they should go against God's word because some other people might be cured by stem cell research? That'll really work, right? I don't get the point here.
Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.This article is so confusing that I really don't know how to respond. I don't know any scientist who thinks that emphasizing technical details is all there is to good science education. Sometimes the authors seem to be arguing that we should use non-scientific arguments to advance our case. Other times they seem to be saying that we should avoid talking about religion—this would be like ignoring a hippo in the room. And still other times they seem to be saying that we need to improve the teaching of science.
And they do all this without ever showing me why I should even bother listening to them. I don't see one single example of an article by either Mooney or Nisbet that illustrates the superiority of their method. Come on, guys, if you're going to criticize scientists for the way they write about science then at least have the courtesy to establish your credentials.
I can tell you one thing. This article sure would have benefited from peer review.