At Seed, Mooney on Framing and Religious Messengers

Chris Mooney's latest Seed column is now available free at the magazine's web site. Chris spotlights several panels at this year's AAAS meetings that focused on how to better engage the public on complex science issues. Several panelists at AAAS echoed our Framing Science recommendations, pointing to research in areas such as political science to suggest that facts alone will not move public action on global warming, and that working together with religious and business leaders is one way to breakthrough to otherwise inattentive publics.


Ethicist Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington-Seattle is one of many thinkers who've looked closely at the disconnect between the hard evidence of human-caused global warming and our failure to deal with the problem. He calls climate change a "perfect moral storm" because it uniquely tests our capacity to do the right thing (cut emissions). That climate change is global means we need coordination across societies that have vastly different values, priorities, and technological capabilities. That the most severe impacts won't be felt immediately means we have to sacrifice today to protect generations yet to come. And that there is still considerable uncertainty about future consequences means we can debate endlessly about how bad things are going to get. It's no surprise, then, that decades have passed without a coordinated global response that's adequate to the problem at hand.

But admitting and recognizing all of these hurdles doesn't let anyone off the hook. In fact, I've grown increasingly convinced that scientists and science defenders must realize that they are also responsible, to a significant extent, for failing to communicate the nature of this "perfect problem" to the rest of the public in a way that truly mobilizes action.

The point hit home for me as I listened to Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, debunk a central assumption that many scientists harbor as they endeavor to inform the public about complicated, technical issues like global warming: "If we tell them what we know, they will change what they believe and change what they do." But that's not how it works. As Lupia explains, people aren't necessarily lazy, apathetic, or stupid. Instead, there's so much to understand about global warming; a barrage of information competes for everyone's attention, and a pack of spin doctors are actively trying to confuse the issues. Then there are the less-enlightened media outlets that either fail to cover the issue in depth or misleadingly treat it as a controversy. The facts have been distorted, and the message hasn't been getting through.

Scientists certainly aren't the only or the main problem here--but all too often, they speak at audiences on global warming, rather than to them. Effective communication starts with understanding the assumptions and prior knowledge of the audience. And on global warming, Lupia explains, the public is "lost in the woods." But rather than trying to go in and find that public and guide it around obstacles, it often seems as if scientists would prefer to shout highly technical directions from a distance. They drone on about probability distribution functions and albedos.

Communicating about climate change is tricky, no doubt. For one thing, Lupia points out that the right person to go in and rescue the "lost" public isn't always going to be a techno-bantering scientist. Instead, some people might respond better to a different messenger: perhaps a fellow church member and evangelical Christian, or perhaps a fellow businessman and market-based conservative.

Lupia's ideas dovetail closely with the work of one of Seed's own science bloggers: "Framing Science" author Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University. Whereas Lupia emphasizes the importance of finding the right messenger to reach the public, Nisbet highlights the message itself. As he details in his research, certain "frames"--selective ways of presenting an issue--can be shown to resonate with core values held by the public. For instance, evangelicals have framed the obligation to address global warming as a matter of "creation stewardship," even as some corporate leaders have framed the issue as an economic "opportunity," rather than an all-out assault on the GDP.

Notice: Neither of these frames is technical or science-intensive. No wonder--most nonscientists' eyes glaze over when they hear that kind of stuff. In fact, it can be argued that emphasizing scientific complexities is actually counterproductive: All the caveats and "uncertainties" make the public think (precisely as the denialists want) that the cause of the problem is somehow still in doubt. So, odd as it may sound, scientists may want to stop talking exclusively about scientific complexities all the time if they actually want to steer the public out of the woods and, in so doing, incite change.

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