A Show of Hands

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.


  1. Yes, Mooney and Nisbet ARE spot on that the scientific community needs to invest more effort communicating to the public at large.

    But, by latching on to the “framing” buzzword, they are associating themselves with some unfortunate precedents. George Lakoff gave liberal politicians a tongue lashing in 2004, told them to “frame” their message instead of spewing facts, and then disappeared without making a single practical recommendation on how they could do that.

    Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shallenberger did the same thing in 2005, scorching the environmental movement with “Death of Environmentalism” in 2005 for bad communications and calling on them to “frame” their message for wider consumption. Like Lakoff before them, they disappeared without putting forward any actionable advice.

    So now Mooney and Nisbet have jumped on the “framing” bandwagon. This time, it’s scientists getting the harsh critique. As with Lakoff, Nordhaus, and Shallenberger, it’s not really clear what they think the scientific community ought to do, only that they are disappointed with what the community is doing now.

    If Mooney and Nisbet have a better plan, they should stay of the press circuit until they’re ready to roll it out. Right now, they’re enjoying their 15 minutes of fame finding fault with others, without an actionable prescription of what the scientific community should do better or differently.

    Not impressive.

  2. We’ve known for many, many years that science has a communication problem, and we’re trying. When Nisbet/Mooney came out with these short pieces, what I expected was assistance — fresh ideas for helping us move along. Instead, what we got was criticism (which I can humbly accept), but no positive suggestions. We got the usual Dawkins scapegoat, the finger-pointing at atheists, and complaints that we dwell too much on the evidence.

    That doesn’t help at all.

    I’m afraid Nisbet and Mooney are “laboring under the misapprehension that those efforts have a chance to actually fix science’s public communication problems.” As someone who wrestles with this business of communicating to the public all the time, I know about the difficulties and failures, and was predisposed to accept constructive suggestions, but what did I get? Nothin’. Except the blame.

  3. PZ – Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for the comments. The reason I was so hard on you in my previous post is that your April 7 response suggests to me that you don’t get the Nisbet/Mooney diagnosis of the problem. Your three points – a) scientists *are* good communicators, b) blame the media, and c) blame the audience – suggest the same sort of misunderstanding among scientists that I’m talking about here. You are right that scientists are good communicators in certain settings. You describe the classroom, for example, and your ability to explain complicated subjects. But the point of the Nisbet/Mooney explanation of the problem is how we go about approaching and providing useful information to people who aren’t in your classrooms, and who aren’t reading a thoughtful explanation of the science in my newspaper. Which is most of the audience.

    We could wish the world were different – that everyone took your class, that all media did a good job, or that all information consumers were curious and thoughtful. But they’re not.

  4. Yes, I know that. The professoriate is accustomed to talking to an audience, and we’re pretty darned good at talking to that specific group. I would be thrilled to get help redirecting those skills to be able to better converse with a non-academic group.

    Nisbet/Mooney didn’t give me any help. Telling me that we need to speak in a different way to a group of farmers vs. a group of students is something we already know, and is trivial to the point of tedium. Specifics, please. Something other than telling me I shouldn’t talk about evidence, and should suck up to the religious.

  5. Most ‘information consumers’ are not thoughtful and curious.

    And they aren’t helped by the 6.00 news which spent more time last night on William and his girlfriend’s breakup than the situation in Eye-rack.

    I don’t have the URL handy (commenting at lunch), but there’s a one-panel cartoon that came out recently that illustrates John’s point:

    two adjacent movie theaters, one showing “An Inconvenient Truth” with no line, the other showing “A Reassuring Lie” and the line goes around the block.

    Until climate change hits most people in the pocketbook, they don’t have the time or energy to care, even if you guilt them into admitting their kids are at risk. Mark Hertsgaard found this very thing in Earth Odyssey.

    It’s simply human nature. Framing will help gain some receptive ears.

    But most people, also, follow leaders. The leaders must lead on this issue.



  6. Given the large amount of information to be absorbed in order to make sensible choices about things, from climate change to what digital camera to buy, what we usually do is turn to experts, people who know their field very well.

    The difficulty here is that the very notion of expertise has been under attack from all over the place for long before I was born. But John makes a very important point about information misers. An example in my everyday life is, that in purchasing a digital camera, I had a chat with some photographically knowledgeable friends about what camera to get, what to look out for, where to get good reviews of cameras. Conversely, should they want to know about chemistry, Scottish history or some other topics, they would come to me, as their on-tap expert so to speak.

    This saves them several hours of legwork and brain space and effort, which they could use to recover from their day job or further their own expertise.

  7. Also, from the evolution versus creationists problem, (or braindead fundies versus reality) this quote highlights the issue:

    “Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments.”

    What was a major problem was that the media reports would frequently go something like this:
    Dr X, who wrote an article for the Creationist magazine in support of them said that “the earth is only 6,000 years old and we couldnt have evolved because of irreducible complexity.”
    Prof Z from the local university said in reply “Thats balderdash.”

    The creationists and scientific arguments get given the same space and treated as if they are both equally valid, whereas we all know which one is correct. (scientifically speaking) Things have improved since the Dover decision, in which ID/Creationists in the trial were shown to be either incompetent or liars.

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