Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Climate change, the IPCC and the framing of science

In last week’s issue of Science, Matthew Nisbet and journalist Chris Mooney argued that scientists communicating issues like climate change to the public must “learn to actively frame information to make it relevant to different audiences”.

The paper has already generated a lot of debate. Should scientists be cowing to the demands of the marketplace in order to communicate their message? Or should we stick to our own means of discourse and risk losing the audience to well-crafted messages of non-scientists? Nisbet’s blog has a selection of the responses.

I thought about it a lot last week, when I was almost thrust into a short televised debate about climate change on Bloomberg News with Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, author of the utterly laughable book A Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming. In case you somehow can't tell from the title of his book, Horner’s not particularly interested in science, and he’s what you might call a skeptic of climate change.

In the end, there were technical problems with the studio on campus, and our department had to cancel. Before I continue… as I got online to post this blog – about Horner, communicating climate change and Nisbet and Mooney’s article – I found this post by NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt on the blog Realclimate, telling the tale of appearing on Bloomberg News with Horner. Don’t forget a second think Schmidt was a second-choice to me, or anyone. Let’s just say I happened to be by the phone when Bloomberg started making calls.

The invitation was a reminder that the “debate” is not over for many people. Sadly, some of North America has not graduated past the infantile pro-con, left-right, brown-green and environment-economy debates on climate change. Horner and Schmidt (or I or whomever) were (to be) given equal air time to discuss the findings in the (at the time, upcoming) IPCC report, even though as the token climate scientist, Schmidt was representing the conclusions of the 99+% of the scientific community that accepts the role of human activity in climate change.

Mr. Horner has recently become a regular on the pundit circuit. He relies on pithy, and frankly quite ridiculous, one-liners about climate science designed – “framed” – to:

a) tap into people’s pre-existing doubts that mere little people could affect something as grand as the atmosphere
b) reduce climate change to a partisan political issue.

The approach is well-suited to cable news channels, where statements are short, the viewer is distracted by stock quotes, baseball scores, terror alerts and flashing slogans, and everything is partisan. It is no surprise that Horner been featured on everything from the Daily Show to the Fox News’ childish bipartisan slugfest Hannity and Colmes.

As a scientist, what would I have done in response? Shrug off the one-liners and soberly summarize the facts and the strong consensus among the reputable research community? Engage in the debate, spending my precious air time spewing my own pithy counter-attack, featuring test-marketed phrases like “energy independence” or “the planet has a fever”? Or provide viewers with the rational, sober discussion of climate change that, in my mind at least, they deserve?

To best fit the medium and the audience, I would have towed the line between the approaches described above. Short, well-crafted statements about science peppered with more user-friendly language and key “it” words or phrases. What else can you do with 15-30 second snippets of air time to communicate information?

In others words, I would have “framed” the information to make it relevant to the audience. Now, I write this, at least the word frame, reluctantly. While logical and convenient, “frame” smells suspiciously of the marketing speak that is consuming everyday life, like the ubiquitous word brand, which not so long ago, was only used as a verb when discussing ruminants. We don’t want to just sell you our product or service or concept, we want to burn it deep into your flesh with a scalding hot metal rod. Alas, I digress...

The truth is, framing is not new to us scientists. Think of the research granting process. In most grant applications, the investigators must fit the proposed work to the constraints of the call for proposals and the funding agency. Research is essentially pitched in a particular vein to best fit the interested of the audience. Today, this often means framing your previous published research and your proposed research as crucial steps in understanding and solving great ecological and societal dilemmas like climate change, land cover change or declining biodiversity.

It goes on. Admission to graduate school? A post-doctoral job? A faculty job? The holy grail – tenure? At each rung on the ladder, one must present their area and method of research in a way that appeals to faculty or the university as a whole. Scientists, if they want to be successful, must know how to tailor information to the audience.

There is, nonetheless, some danger in the type of framing suggested by Nisbet and Mooney. By altering our method of communications to fit the medium, we risk lowering scientific research and expertise to the level of other partisan, subjective work produced by lobby organizations, political think tanks and the like. That’s why I so dislike the slandering of the IPCC process. Obsess over the politics too much, and the IPCC reports may start to appear, in the minds of the average public, as no better than all the other reports on climate change, or silly books like Mr. Horner’s, despite the fact that the IPCC represents the most thorough reading of scientific literature and expert knowledge on climate change.

Scientists are no different than anyone else. They’re not objective. What usually, though not always, sets scientific work apart is the method. State your hypothesis, state the way it was tested and state the way the results are analyzed, such that others, if so inspired, can replicate the results. The final results are then reviewed by others in the field before being officially released. The scientific method recognizes the subjectivity inherent in all work and attempts to remove, or at least reduce, it.

If we get too crafty in our presentation, stray too far from the core tenets of the profession, the true (and sometimes imagined) value of scientific work may be compromised.

In addition, I worry that, too often, the framing or presentation of science to the public is rooted, whether consciously or not, in the demeaning assumption that the public is not smart enough to understand the details. Personally, I feel this assumption has more to do with our arrogance, as scientists, than any true observation on the general public, though I admit I do not have any data to back this assertion (and could thus be convinced otherwise). And even if the assumption is correct, that the public isn’t able to or interested in understanding the details, then the root problem is not scientific communication. It is scientific literacy and basic education.

Framing may very well help win a few battles, say with folks like Christopher Horner, but only reforming science education and increasing scientific literacy will win the war.


Anonymous said...

Great Discussion Donner. And I appreciate your application to the experience you had with news coverage of the IPCC report.

For interested readers, our Policy Forum article is now freely available by way of link in the left side bar of my blog at: www.scienceblogs.com/framing-science.

Also, readers can find more information on research about framing and media influence at this special section of the blog:


Simon Donner said...

I encourage people to read the paper (and the responses). Though I disagree with some aspects of the 'framing' argument, it is definitely a subject the scientific community should be discussing.