Framing and Coordination

I haven’t been following the discussion of the Mooney/ Nisbet “framing” article in Science all that closely, because most of the commentary has tended to be uninteresting in predictable ways. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of links from Bora (who else?), and Matt and Chris respond to most of it.

There was one response that struck me as worth highlighting, though, from James Hrynyshyn of the Island of Doubt:

Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist. To be a great scientist requires enormous sacrifice and years of focusing on those very details that our framing enthusiasts would so readily discard. To tell them “Oh, and by the way, in addition to knowing your own field backwards and forwards, and being a good people manager, and writing killer grant applications, you also have to be a master of rhetoric, well-skilled in crafting public PowerPoint/Keynote presentations, and be completely up-to-speed on the latest political hot-button issues,” is just plain cruel. Yes, it’s wonderful when you stumble across an accomplished Renaissance scientist with the ability to make clear what was until then obscure and arcane. But these people would be on the endangered species list if they’re weren’t human.

I think this is right on the mark, though I disagree somewhat with his proposed solution. The damage to the public reputation of science has not been done by scientists, it’s been done by a well-funded network of political operatives and professional PR flacks. It’s crazy to expect scientists to be able to counter this directly– that’s not what we’re trained to do.

James suggests that the best counter for this is for science journalists to take the lead in responding, but I’m not sure I agree with that. The current model of “objective” journalism in the form of “he said, she said” stories has been skillfully exploited by the right-wing PR machine, and could do with some reform, but even if journalists found the political will to start including factual evaluations in their stories, I don’t think this would really solve the problem. Science journalists are still a distinct group with their own set of goals and interests, and those goals and interests will not always be aligned with those of scientists.

What’s needed is really to fight fire with fire. In a battle for public opinion, professional PR flacks are going to beat professional scientists nine times out of ten, so why let it come down to that sort of uneven battle? What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they’ll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.

The problem here, it seems to me, is not so much a matter of framing as one of coordination. The anti-science forces, regardless of issue, are waging a well-funded and coordinated campaign against the scientific consensus. They have a concrete goal that they all agree on, and they all say the same things about it.

Scientists, on the other hand, are mostly operating on their own. They’re mostly approached as individuals, and they all say slightly different things about what they’re doing, creating the impression of a vague and scattered message, even when the actual scientific consensus is as clear and unambiguous as scientific consensus ever gets. And when the anti-science message is “None of this stuff is really certain,” that’s just death.

It’s like the Sunday talk show battle. If you flip around the Sunday morning news shows (or, better yet, watch the Daily Show on Monday night, and look at the highlights), every show has someone there to represent the Bush administration position. And every single one of those people will say the same thing, in almost exactly the same words. Meanwhile, the various Democratic representatives will offer their objections with different emphases and different words.

Taken as a whole, this creates an impression in the public mind of a strong, confident, and decisive executive, even when the actual policies are a nonsensical collection of ad hoc reactions without a coherent plan behind them. And it makes the opposition seem weak and ineffectual, which, well, they mostly have been, to be honest, but they’re getting better.

John Stewart has a good old time making fun of the way that administration officials speak in robotic lock step, but the fact is, it’s tremendously effective. As demonstrated by the fact that there are still people in this country who think that Bush is doing a good job. A coordinated response with a well-crafted message repeated over and over again is going to win out over a scattering of individual responses, even when all of the individual responses are right.

Chris Mooney gets it right in his response to James:

Matt and I never meant to suggest that every last scientist has to become a top knotch framer. Rather, we want scientific societies, institutions, and universities to rearrange their priorities and step up to the plate on this. That means training a generation of better science communicators (although many scientists will assuredly opt out of the “framing” curriculum). It also means launching communication initiatives–such as advertising–targeted at specific publics, and using the right frames to reach them.

I think this is really the important point, and I think it needs more emphasis. What’s really needed is not so much for individual scientists to become experts at “framing” their work for the public, but for scientists as a group to recognize that there is a public relations problem, and that “framing” is part of the solution on an institutional level. We need a centralized and coordinated message to be coming from the scientific community, in the same way that there’s a centralized and coordinated message coming from the anti-science community.

This is always going to be an uphill fight, as there are vast sums of money at stake in maintaining the status quo in the short term, while there’s little short-term gain to be had in addressing real issues of climate change and the like. (It’s the horizon problem again– in the long term, there will be a lot more money for everybody if we take action to address global warming, but that won’t help Exxon Mobil’s stock price this quarter…) That means there’s going to be a lot more motivation for the people on the anti-science side of some of these issues to craft and promote their message, while a comparable response from the scientific community will require scientists to buy in on principle, more or less.

It’s the best chance we have to actually win, though.