by Judith Curry
. . . as scientists are increasingly viewed not as honest brokers, but as advocates aligned with the goals of the Democratic party, scientists and their organizations risk losing public trust and only likely contribute to polarization on hot button issues like climate change.
Matthew Nisbet has a very good post entitled Applying Science Communication Research to Policy Debates: What Role for Scientists and their Organizations? The entire article is well worth reading, below are some excerpts:
For all the attention that science communication research has deservedly received, what is still missing from this discussion is careful analysis, understanding and application of normative and ethical principles to how scientists and their organizations can both effectively and ethically apply this research to their engagement of the public and policy makers.
Four guiding principles
Audience-based research can and should inform communication planning and strategy, leading to a range of potential outcomes. Yet in applying framing research to public engagement efforts, there are four key ethical imperatives to keep in mind. These include:
* Emphasizing dialogue and the exchange of perspectives, rather than traditional top-down approaches to communication. This imperative can be promoted either through face-to-face deliberative forums, new models of digital participatory media, and/or as in the case of the National Academies, using research to identify frames that emphasize common ground and promote dialogue.
* Effectively and transparently communicating the values—or the second premise—that guides a policy decision rather than simplistically defining a policy debate as a matter of “sound science” or “driven by science.” In a policy debate, when scientists or journalists focus exclusively on these types of first premise claims, they create the incentives for interest groups to turn science into just another political resource, leading to distortion and exaggerations over scientific evidence and uncertainty.
* No matter their role as issue advocate or honest broker, accuracy in communication needs to be maintained. Both scientists and journalists must respect the uncertainty that is inherent to any technical question, resisting the tendency to engage in either false balance or exaggeration. As in the case of climate change, each time a scientific claim is proven false or inaccurate; it risks further alienating publics already distrustful of the science and scientists.
* Finally, scientists and journalists should avoid using framing to denigrate or attack religion or to define political parties and leaders as either “anti-science” or “pro-science.” Framing will always be an effective and legitimate part of social criticism and electoral politics, but for scientists and journalists to simplistically define critiques of religion or opposition to a political candidate as a “matter of science and reason” is not only inaccurate, but also alienates key publics, impairing efforts at dialogue and consensus-building.
A typology of frames applied to the climate debate
|Frame||Defines Science-Related Issue As…|
|Social progress||…improving quality of life, or solution to problems. Alternative interpretation as harmony with nature instead of mastery, “sustainability.”|
|Economic development/competitiveness||…economic investment, market benefits or risks; local, national, or global competitiveness.|
|Morality/ethics||…in terms of right or wrong; respecting or crossing limits, thresholds, or boundaries.|
|Scientific/technical uncertainty||…a matter of expert understanding; what is known versus unknown; either invokes or undermines expert consensus, calls on the authority of “sound science,” falsifiability, or peer-review.|
|Pandora’s box / Frankenstein’s monster / runaway science||…call for precaution in face of possible impacts or catastrophe. Out-of-control, a Frankenstein’s monster, or as fatalism, i.e. action is futile, path is chosen, no turning back.|
|Public accountability/governance||…research in the public good or serving private interests; a matter of ownership, control, and/or patenting of research, or responsible use or abuse of science in decision-making, “politicization,”|
|Middle way/alternative path||…around finding a possible compromise position, or a third way between conflicting/polarized views or options.|
|Conflict/strategy||…as a game among elites; who’s ahead or behind in winning debate; battle of personalities; or groups; (usually journalist-driven interpretation.)|
Partisan Soldiers with Science on their Side
[A]dvocates accused the George W. Bush administration of putting politics ahead of science and expertise on a number of issues, including climate change. For example, in the 2004 election, Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) made strategic use of the public accountability frame, comparing distortions on climate change to the administration’s use of intelligence to invade Iraq: ““What I worry about with the president is that he’s not acknowledging what’s on the ground, he’s not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he’s not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues.”
In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney’s best-selling The Republican War on Science helped crystallize the public accountability train of thought, turning the “war on science” into a partisan rallying cry. In 2007, Hillary Clinton, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, promised to end the “war on science” in American politics, highlighting the emergent prominence of this frame device.
The public accountability frame has outraged and intensified the commitment of many Democrats, environmental advocates, and scientists, motivating them to label Republican and conservative political figures as “deniers” on climate change and to engage in sharp rhetorical attacks on political opponents in other policy disputes. Yet for many members of the public, “war on science” claims are likely ignored as just more elite rancor or only further alienate Republicans on the issue.
[I]f scientists speak from their authority and institutional position as trusted experts, using framing to claim that a specific political party or a candidate is either “pro-science” or “anti-science,” the result is likely to be both normatively and strategically undesirable.
First, claims of a “war on science” or a “rising anti-science culture” are inaccurate and reinforce deficit model assumptions. In Congress, for example, on the great majority of issues there is widespread bi-partisan support for science, a reality reflected in Federal spending on basic research and bi-partisan boosterism in areas such as food biotechnology.
The unintended consequence of “war on science” claims is that given the miserly nature of the public, the framing strategy easily reinforces the partisan divide on issues such as stem cell research and climate change while promoting a false narrative that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans. [P]olls show that the differences between Democrats and Republicans in views of embryonic stem cell research and climate change have widened to more than thirty percentage points respectively.
In fact, this persistent and widening gap in perceptions over the past decade suggests that climate change and stem cell research have joined a short list of issues such as gun control or taxes that define what it means to be a partisan in the United States. [W]hile “war on science” claimants believe they are defending the integrity of science, they are more likely to be part of the communication problem, reinforcing partisan divisions across key issues.
JC comments: Matt Nisbet’s analysis provides some important insights. I found the frame typology for the climate change debate to be particularly illuminating. I can think of numerous examples of each of these framings. I continue to be disgusted by certain members of the ‘elite’ community that focus on conflict/strategy. The only example I can think of for middle way/alternative path was Drew Shindell’s proposal for a climate fast attack plan, which was demonized by ‘elite’ advocates. My own efforts in highlighting scientific/technical uncertainty have resulted in attempts by the ‘elites’ to denigrate and ostracize me, as a ‘serial climate disinformer.’
The only frames that have any chance of succeeding for some climate change policy, IMO, are economic development/competitiveness and middle way/alternative path. And any way forward needs a realistic accounting of scientific and technical uncertainty.