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.)