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."
Question: How can you make science fun while maintaining substance?
Matthew Nisbet: You know, it depends on the issue, it depends on the context in the goals. So, you know, one of the first challenges is simply to get attention. In our fragmented media system you have the problem of choice. It's very easy for people to completely select themself even out of the general news audience much less paying attention to science. So, you have to figure out a way to recast a complex debate such as climate change in a way that is interesting to an intended audience. A great example, John McCain is doing this now by talking about climate change as a national security issue. One of the problems with climate change is that we have the two Americas of public perceptions on the issues I like to call it. You have Democrats who are increasingly concerned about the issue and mobilize, whereas for the most part you see Republicans relatively inattentive and not really mobilized around the issue, in fact, even dismissive of the science. But once you shift climate change into the mental box of—- you know you may never have paid attention to this issue before, but really in fact, this issue is about national security and it's about protecting against natural disasters, it's about making sure that different parts of the world are not destabilized because of climate change or alternatively this issue is really about growing the economy around investment and renewable energy. We can develop renewable energy, we can create a market for it, in the same time we can solve this pressing problem of climate change. As soon as you switch the issue to those two mental boxes you're suddenly activating attention from say a moderate republican audience who may never have paid attention to an environmental issue like climate change in the past, but suddenly they see it as a national security issue or suddenly they see it in terms of investment potential or economic growth.
Question: Is all of this just spin?
Matthew Nisbet: Well, in this case the, you know, and in fact in the history on an issue like climate change, you know there's been leading examples where the science has been spun in false ways and misleading ways and certainly that's been a strategy of many conservatives to really downplay concern over the issue and have really no policy action, always to say that the science is uncertain, sort of a paralysis by analysis type strategy. But when it comes to science institutions communicating with the public, what needs to happen is that scientists always have to remain true to the science, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily only have to speak about the science in very technical terms that is often boring or inaccessible to the audience. So, in this case by repackaging climate change as a national security issue, you're first activating attention and interest. For some people that might be good enough, they can take the issue and place it among other issues that they're already concerned about. But for another part of that audience, they'll now be motivated to pay closer attention to the science. Learning only starts first after motivation and you have to figure out in part when you frame a scientific topic the first thing you're doing is you're motivating interest so that learning can actually start to take place.
Last week I spoke with Elana Schor of Greenwire about the Obama White House and Organizing for America's strategy to pre-empt efforts by conservatives to undermine support for the proposed EPA limits on greenhouse...