Review: Speaking Science 2.0: The Road to 2008 & Beyond  

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I was a few minutes late arriving, but I was able to get an excellent parking spot right out front. I have never been to Stowers Institute before. It's a beautiful building situated within (or near, I'm not sure of the association) UMKC Medical Park. I'm glad I heard about the talk, if just to find out about others that are being given at Stowers and other affiliated sites. Scanning the list of talks given recently I'm sorry to have missed some of them. I wish they were in the evenings or on weekends.

The presentation started out with a power outage and it took a few minutes for everything to get underway, which gave me a little time to settle in.

Mooney started the talk by stating that they were taking a new approach to science communication. As background he discussed his book The Republican War on Science and how when he used to give talks from material in this book he'd hear a lot of outrage from the scientific community.

From the reaction to his presentations, he started thinking of ways to solve the political-science disconnect. He outlined three ways that I noted:

1) Science education
2) Criticism of the media
3) Translating knowledge to policy and public acceptance

This presentation would cover #3, translating knowledge into policy and public acceptance. As a side note he compared scientific debate to boxing, media coverage to kickboxing, and public debate as UFC fighting. [I personally prefer 1 and 3 from an entertainment standpoint.]

Nisbet then took over to talk about Popular Science vs. Reality. He put up a slide of Carl Sagan as an example for how scientists attempt to communicate on science. He compared the Bush campaign to the Kerry campaign in '04. Bush, he said, ran on a campaign of a likable person, who could relate to the common man. Kerry ran on the issues.

Then he pointed out how people have too many choices in the media today. So they usually tailor the news they listen to based on their individual or community beliefs and very rarely look outside that spectrum. And, even though more scientific information is available now than ever, people are less knowledgeable about science.

He suggested that frames can be used to organize a central idea on an issue to communicate to the general public, to policy makers, and to the media. He equated framing to nuclear energy being used for both good and bad purposes.

Below is a slide with several frames that they'll use in their discussions. I apologize for the blurriness. I didn't have the flash on and I'm really a poor photographer. You can expand it to see a larger size.

During the questions after the discussion Mooney and Nisbet were asked what frames they liked the most. Nisbet chose Social Progress and Economic Development. Mooney chose "the middle way", which I'm assuming is Third Way/Alternate Path in the slide.

Mooney took over and went on to discuss Defending Evolutionary Science as a failed example of framing. He said the way evolution has been framed is to criticize Intelligent Design and focus on the facts of evolution. The IDists framed ID using the Third Way/Alternate Path frame with the catch phrase of "teach the controversy." They also claimed the elite were suppressing their views.

Scientists responded with scientific fact, which the public found too technical and off-putting for the public. And the disagreements within the scientific community only reinforced the idea of scientific uncertainty, which the IDists took up with zeal.

I haven't seen the movie, but he cited one example from "Flock of Dodos" [which I'm looking forward to seeing this month on Showtime]. Supposedly in the movie there is a scene where a group is playing poker and one person dismisses the IDists with a comment like "you're an idiot." The PR image that came out of that scene [I didn't think many people had seen it] was of angry scientists. [I may not be representing Chris completely here. I was a little confused since I haven't seen the movie.]

Then he quickly talked about Dawkins and how his message of science vs. religion is off-putting.

Chris suggested a better frame to use is the Third Way/Alternate Path - religion and science can co-exist. And in response to the elitism frame of IDists, a small group pushed its narrow views on a diverse group.

[I disagree with this approach, but I've stated it before and I'm not going to go over old ground for this post.]

Nisbet then gave an example where framing by the scientific community had been successful in Stem Cells. He had several graphs of polls he and others had taken, but he moved too quickly through them for me to look at them closely and take notes. I do remember one on changing opinion before the Proposition 71 vote in California and how correct framing had been responsible for that change.

His argument was that pro-stem cell proponents used two frames very effectively - Social Progress and Economic Development. The anti-stem cell research proponents used the morality and ethics frame [which I didn't see on their frame slide] to some effect, but it couldn't beat out the other frames. He also pointed out two strategies just before the vote. Celebrities speaking out about the benefits of stem cell research and placing it in a positive light and at the same time scientists releasing a joint statement about the benefits of stem cell research.

The things scientists did not do were attack religious and moral beliefs, using the Conflict frame, or try to increase public knowledge.

Next Nisbet talked on Global Warming as an example of an issue where framing was once poor but was being turned around. Conservatives used the Scientific Uncertainty frame to convince people that the scientific debate is still open. They point to the unfair economic burden that people will face if we try to deal with global warming meaningfully. And also that the people behind the movement are just Liberal Hollywood activists and celebrities trying to scare people.

Nisbet pointed out that the liberal frame was Pandora's Box through Al Gore's message, which caused the conservatives to respond that it was just alarmism.

A new frame that is being used is the one illustrated below. Get religion on board by positively identifying religious figures and communities with advocacy of environmentalism.

[I have to disagree here. I live in a red state an I know many conservatives, mostly non-religious conservatives, that probably make up as large a voting block as religious conservatives. They don't have any qualms with evolution. But they do have problems with global warming. And much of the reason they have a problem with global warming is because of Al Gore. I think he polarized the issue as much as Dawkins has polarized the evolution issue, but along conservative political instead of religious evangelical lines.

There needs to be evidence presented in order to convince people that global warming is caused by human factors and the more that evidence that is presented in non-biased terms, the better job it will do in convincing people. Al Gore is seen as an alarmist by these people and what he says is dismissed and outright criticized. A scientist would be a much better speaker in this sense than a politician. Use beneficial frames on the social or economic impacts, sure. But celebrities and politicians only seem to be hurting the cause.]

Nisbet or Mooney, I can't remember who [I think Mooney] at this point, continued with Hurricanes and Global Warming by pointing out what the hurricane season in 2005 did for sparking the global warming debate. Suddenly the news was paying attention. And it continued to be a hot topic in 2006. The speaker pointed out that a study published right before hurricane Wilma that associated strong hurricanes to global warming was timed perfectly and that Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth cover was a powerful image associating to hurricanes.

Scientists were also able to frame the debate using the Third Way/Alternate Path by pointing out the amount of destruction that could be caused now as a result of the build up of infrastructure on the coast.

They finished up with a few New Directions in Science Communications. They went through these points so fast I hardly had a chance to write them down. I'm not sure if they were pressed for time, but as the talk went on they went faster and faster.

1) Framing is important to science communication.
2) Choose good leaders including regular lay people and church leaders to share information about new scientific reports.

[He mentioned bringing up the scientific reports to co-workers. In my office I know it'd just get me branded as obnoxious. Politics, religion, and even social issues are not discussed at work except with co-workers that you consider friends, and that only happens outside of work for the most part. Blogs of diverse topics presenting scientific links and information was a better example. But I think most likely people that don't want to hear about the issue are just going to go elsewhere.]

3) Scientists & local news

[I took this down from the slide, but I don't remember it being discussed.]

4) Using film to engage media and target audiences

[Fine if it's not preachy. Preachy tends to turn people off or they won't go see it in the first place. I think most people I know would prefer facts in this kind of format, which have been largely discouraged by Chris & Matthew. But then maybe I'm not part of the average demographic.]

5) Engage editors so that they will have a more positive view of science/scientists
6) Educate journalists
7) Go beyond the "tyranny of the news peg"

[I think this was about scientific releases showing consensus and releasing studies that show the benefits of the issue being advocated.]

8) Change culture and produce incentives

[I didn't get a good picture of how this will be accomplished.]

The questions were diverse, but mostly elaborated on subjects they've covered before. I didn't ask a question. I was still trying to gather my thoughts from the talk and I didn't want to get into the arguments on Dawkins and atheism.

All-in-all I think they made some valuable points, but I didn't find a lot that was revolutionary. And there were several things that I disagreed with, as noted. I think their strategy will work as an alternate path to how scientific issues are communicated today, but I don't see it as the only path.

[Note: The bolded items were topics of discussion from the slides. Also, apologies for any spelling and grammar mistakes in advance. My husband came home from a business trip tonight and I'm more focused on him than this post at the moment. Not that I don't make plenty of spelling and grammar mistakes anyway.

Also a quick acknowledgement to Keith who told me about the presentation.]

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