Matthew Nisbet Explains "The Paradigm Sheep"

Professor and Blogger

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs  at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."

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TRANSCRIPT

Matthew Nisbet:  Well, I've been traveling across the country giving about three dozen talks over the last year to universities and scientific institutions.  We talked face to face to about maybe 3,000- 3,000 people over the last year about new directions in science communication.  And one of the things that we argue is we're starting to see a paradigm shift in how science institutions and scientists think about the communication process going out beyond the natural audience for science and thinking about really taking a scientific approach to the communication of science, drawing on a lot of the social science research that's grown up over the last 20 years in the sociology of science, in science communication and also the application of political communication to this area.  And one of the kind of seminal studies that really kind of changed the way that people started to think about how the public interprets scientific information was a case study with the fall-out from the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in the late 1980s in England, where a group of sheep farmers that it was not safe to raise and harvest their sheep by government scientists.  What government scientists couldn't understand was, the sheep farmers were very reluctant in accepting this government advice and the moratorium on raising their sheep and they naturally assumed it was because of public ignorance, they didn't understand the science, they were being irrational.  But in fact there were really good reasons that the sheep farmers rejected the advice, one was in the past there was a nuclear fall-out from a local nuclear reactor that generated distrust among the sheep farmers and then when the scientists came into the area to take samples from the sheep, they ignored the advice of the scientists on how to take those samples and the sheep farmers actually directly witnessed scientists making all sorts of different types of mistakes in the actual sampling, so that reinforced the idea that scientists didn't know what they were talking about.  So, there are very good kind of common sense reasons why and historical reasons why the sheep farmers rejected the scientific advice and it really wasn't about just simply public ignorance but it was really about the interaction between the scientists and the community of sheep farmers themselves.


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