Matthew Nisbet On Studying Audience Behavior

Professor and Blogger
New campaigns often use the same techniques to communicate, however Matthew Nisbet points out that this involves more than simplification.
  • Transcript


Matthew Nisbet:  Right, well, you know, the history of research and framing really spans across social disciplines, social psychology, sociology, political science and linguistics.  The basic research methodology, I actually argue that deductably you can start based on past research, early research that was first done in the nuclear energy debate and then apply to biotechnology and I argue applies to climate change and teaching of evolution, are roughly a generalizable set of frames or latent meanings that appear to happen over and over again across science debates.  You can start with that set of sort of reoccurring meanings and on any particular issue, then do focus groups, polling, in depth interviews as a way to figure out for what particular public do these latent meanings really resonate or apply and then when trying connect the scientific topic to something they already know, what are the frame devices, what are the catch phrases, what are the comparisons to history, what are the metaphors, what are the stories, who are the best spokes-people, what are the examples to use that really hit home and activate this interpretative meaning?

Question: Is accessibility the same as simplification?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well, in fact actually there's nothing wrong with simplification, I mean often times you have to simplify for an audience that doesn't already have the necessary background to understand a very complex sometimes uncertain scientific topic.  And in fact, as I talked about earlier, if you can shift the mental box for the audience, if you can take an issue that's unfamiliar to them and suddenly connected to something that they already understand or is familiar to them or they already care about, that activates interest, it activates understanding and activates motivation then to pay really good attention to the good science content that's out there, say the really good news coverage on the science issue.  So, for example, on stem cell research, when stem cell research first came along in 2001, few people have ever heard about the issue and in fact people that were fighting against government funding for stem cell research immediately put it in the mental box of this is a moral religious debate similar to the issue of abortion and that was a very effective frame, it really triggered a lot of opposition and when Bush announced his compromised position in August 2001 in the funding for stem cell research there was majority support for his compromised position.  On the other hand when patient advocacy groups and scientific institutions came together after that compromised decision and started to reframe the debate over stem cell research as really a matter of social progress, stem cell research leads to cures and also it's a matter of growing the economy, about economic development, now they switched into a familiar context that the public really cared about.  When the public thinks about science generally historically, they think about making their lives better, social progress leading to cures or technology or growing the economy.  And over the subsequent four or five years, you saw very strong growth in public support especially among the moderate religious, Catholics and mainline Protestants of up to 20 percentage points as that message started to get across to the public.