I knew my talk Friday worked when, during the Q and A at the end, one of the grad students asked for a show of hands.
“How many of you believe humans are the primary cause of global warming?”
Probably 90 percent or more of the hands in the room went up.
“How many of you know the scientific evidence in support of that assertion?”
Maybe a quarter of the hands went up.
It was a) a pretty honest answer from the audience members, and b) a clear demonstration of the point I had been trying to get across – that information consumers rarely have the time and inclination to understand an issue’s details in any depth. They’ve got to take information shortcuts. They’ve got to be cognitive misers. Most of these cognitive misers happen to spend their days in a university department of earth and planetary sciences, so those not actually studying climate take the perfectly reasonable shortcut of believing the scientific consensus. Reasonable, but a shortcut nonetheless.
In the blowback over the Nisbet-Mooney pieces about communicating science, there has been entirely too much focus, I think, on their proposed solution – “framing” – and not enough on their diagnosis of the problem, which is that most people do not approach the acquisition of information about science (or anything else) the way scientists think they do:
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.
Speaking from personal experience of years of talking to scientists, I believe Nisbet and Mooney are spot on. In “scientized” political controversies I write about, the scientists imagine that if I only would explain the science as they understand it, the public would respond in the appropriate fashion. They get frustrated when it doesn’t play out that way. In their frustration, they’ve begun to take their case directly to the public, with things like RealClimate, PZ’s Pharyngula, Panda’s Thumb, etc. There’s nothing wrong with those efforts, as long as the scientists involved aren’t laboring under the misapprehension that those efforts have a chance to actually fix science’s public communication problems.
This, I think, is Matt and Chris’s most important contribution to the discussion. The raging confusion over “framing” suggests that no one is quite clear on what sort of a solution they’re talking about, but unfortunately that raging confusion has served to obscure what is, I think, their incredibly important diagnosis of the problem. Their criticism of Richard Dawkins’ assertive atheism has only worsened the problem: everyone seems to be arguing about that now, rather than talking about the problems of science communication and their potential solutions.
A friend came up afterward and said the next time I give the talk, I’ve got to figure out what this “framing” thing is. I made numerous references in the talk to Matt and Chris’s piece, but my friend counted five times I said that I wasn’t quite sure I understood “framing”. I intend to try to figure it out. But in the meantime, I’d like to suggest that those interested in understanding the problem cruise the Chapter 7 of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, which provides a striking body of data on what people in the U.S. and elsewhere do and don’t understand, both scientific facts and questions of scientific methodology. A teaser: you’d be amazed how many people don’t know an electron is smaller than an atom or, more importantly, why you need a control group when you’re testing a new drug. (Those of you with fancy university library access can see Miller 2004 for a nice summary of what we know about what folks know and don’t know.) That’s the reality our attempts to communicate science face.
I don’t understand framing yet well enough to understand whether it is a well-posed answer to the problem. But it is clear to me that whatever solution the science community pursues, it must recognize the reality scientists face: that simply explaining the science as they understand it is not the answer.