Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Standing on the shoulders of disciplinary dwarves? A note on the reactions to Nisbet and Mooney

The recent debates over the Nisbet and Mooney Policy piece in Science again highlight the key problem we have in the broader field of science communication. Most of the criticism of the Science piece comes down to a somewhat dysfunctional academic struggle between different disciplines and subfields claiming ownership over a larger construct – in this case framing. What many of the most vocal critics on various blogs (e.g., here, here, and here) seem to miss, however, is the fact that framing is a construct that has developed across disciplines and across levels of analysis.

Sociologists see frames of references as macro constructs with broad socio-cultural impacts. Linguists focus on the cognitive aspects surrounding semantics and our understanding of language. And Daniel Kahneman's Nobel Prize-winning work in economics and psychology taps individual-level reactions to very specific frame manipulations in the area of risk perception and consumer behavior. For the last 25 years, research in political science, communication, and sociology has been tying together some of these ideas and building a macroscopic theoretical framework, linking theories of individual-level decision making to larger-scale social, cultural and political dynamics. A piece I wrote back in 1999 in Journal of Communication summarizes some of these developments. Understanding framing, therefore, means standing on the shoulders of giants from different disciplines, to borrow from Robert K. Merton one more time, and understanding the dynamics explained by the concept of framing at different levels of analysis.

Dynamics of Framing

(From: Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). Framing theory. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.)

And this is what Nisbet and Mooney are arguing. More importantly, they make recommendations for applying these empirical findings from different disciplines to a specific context, i.e., science communication that reaches broad cross-sections of the public rather than scientifically-interested elites or issue publics. And they distill useful lessons for both scientists and science communicators. Ironically, many of their online critics don't address that central part of Nisbet and Mooney's argument. Instead, their responses focus on terminological disagreements or disciplinary turf battles that are largely irrelevant to the point Nisbet and Mooney are making. And that is the trap that is so easy to fall into when communicating about scientific research. We are talking to each other, using words and distinctions that most of the public does not care about and that sometimes, unfortunately, miss the larger point altogether. And then we're surprised if nobody pays attention.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Nano needs framing: new "Policy Forum" piece in Science

Google co-founder Larry Page scolded scientists for not thinking about their audiences enough at this year's AAAS meeting in San Francisco. Science, he argued has a marketing problem, and if we like it or not, it needs to be fixed.

Similar themes came up at a recent community forum, hosted by IIT's Center on Nanotechnology and Society, that dealt with Risk Perception and Nano Business. Patti Glaza, publisher of Small Times, for instance, argued strongly for a proactive involvement of industry in the current debates surrounding nanotech.

"The stakes are high," she stressed. "They include technical leadership, commercial growth, and human lives. And, therefore, it is critical that those in the industry proactively participate in the debate."
As I outlined in my own talk at the IIT forum, this proactive approach requires scientists to actively participate in the debates surrounding all aspects of emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology. What aspects of nanotech do require public debate and public consensus? And how should those choices be presented to the public without creating simplistic dichotomies, similar to global warming, GMOs, or stem cell research?

A central part of this proactive involvement are efforts to frame the debate. Princeton's Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002 for his work on human decision making. All perception, he argued, is reference dependent. This means that the same piece of information may mean very different things to different people, depending on which interpretive schema they use to make sense of this information.

As a result, people's views on emerging technologies are heavily influences by the interpretive schema they use when trying to make sense of these issues. As a result, an ideal public debate should offer a wide variety of frames, i.e., of ways to integrate complex scientific issues into what we already know. This is what framing is all about: offering different analogies, comparisons, and interpretations. And ultimately citizens will make up their own mind.

Framing is not about pushing simplistic and potentially one-sided frames, but it is about making sure that people are exposed to all sides of the debate and to all possible ways of making sense of these issues. American University's Matthew Nisbet and journalist Chris Mooney hammer that point home one more time in their excellent Policy Forum piece in Science this week. Their conclusion:
"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."

(Click here for
the full article.)