Friday, March 21, 2008

Going Public with the Scientific Process

Ruth Cronje is a faculty member of the Scientific and Technical Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in Eau Claire, WI (USA). She has written a letter that was published in Science last week [Going Public with the Scientific Process]. Many of you will never get to read it but you should. It is wonderful.

I'm going to take a chance here and publish her entire letter just so it gets as wide a coverage as possible.
The idea of using framing strategies to communicate science to the public has recently been taken up in scientific forums (1, 2), the mainstream media (3), and the blogosphere (4, 5). Most participants in the framing science debate limit their notion of scientific information to scientific facts. However, confining science messages to just the facts interferes with public understanding of science as a systematic, logical process of human inquiry and effaces the distinction between data and scientists' reasoning about data. To communicate successfully, we should focus on scientific process by emphasizing two important elements of scientific rationality: skepticism and dynamicism (6, 7).

Scientists deliberately integrate skepticism into their procedures by trying to refute their own hypotheses, retaining them only when confronted with compelling evidence sought through carefully controlled procedures. Scientists tend to shy away from revealing the intrinsic skepticism of science to the public, fearful that it will open the door to doubt about the validity of their conclusions. But communicating only the facts of science (framed or unframed) destabilizes public confidence in science. A fact doesn't allow science communicators to reveal, justify, and ultimately promote the skeptical reasoning process that helps make scientists more confident that their reasoning is correct.

Science is also dynamic; it is a cumulative enterprise that requires scientists to situate their instrumental activities and interpretations against the evidence that has come before and to alter them in light of new evidence. Insisting that new data be interpreted within the context of past and future data will ferret out and correct error over time, but it means that a fact cannot, by definition, be anything more than the (ephemeral and fallible) consensus of scientists at a given point in time. A "just the facts" strategy can and often does backfire, ultimately fueling public alienation from science. When scientists inform the public of "facts" (like the "fact" widely disseminated in the 1970s that all dietary fats are bad for us), and then that "fact" is refined or altered (now we're told olive oil is good for us), the public is justifiably confused. Studies suggest that the public tends to regard normal scientific refinement and self-correction as equivocation or incompetence (8-10). Instead of sweeping uncertainty under the rug, science communicators should help the public understand the logical and systematic procedures by which scientists confront it.

The true majesty and promise of science lies in its systematic, logical, skeptical, and dynamic reasoning procedures. "Successful" science communication should not be regarded as any message that enlists public support for science. Rather, we should define "success" in scientific communication as achieving a public that celebrates scientific reasoning procedures.
In case Mathews and Nisbet don't get it, the new version of Science journal isn't going to let them get away with distorting science for political ends. Nisbet comments on this letter and hopes to discuss the topic with Cronje when he visits her next week [At Science, Still More Reaction to Framing]. I'd love to be there.


  1. Can anyone explain to me the difference between 'framing science' and 'deliberately misleading the public about science' ?

  2. Larry, your link goes through U of Toronto's library. I believe the correct one should be this.

  3. Oh automatic IP-detection institutional access, how I love thee. I'm not on campus, and it's a pain to manually go through the library website to read subscription-locked material. It's just so much easier on campus though...

  4. Anyway, it's a great letter. Too many people get the impression that science is just a collection of facts about nature that these scientists came up with in some arcane way that only they can understand.

  5. It's a good article, and I feel it does more justice to the nature of science than "framing" does.

    nlightnmnt: I would say there is a fine line, and one that would be abused and crossed over many times if framing were to dominate the way in which scientists communicate.