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Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. School of Communication American University Washington DC Science Communication at a Crossroads: New Directions, Lingering Distractions.

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Presentation on theme: "Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. School of Communication American University Washington DC Science Communication at a Crossroads: New Directions, Lingering Distractions."— Presentation transcript:

1 Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. School of Communication American University Washington DC Science Communication at a Crossroads: New Directions, Lingering Distractions Credit: E-magazine, 2008 Health Law Center

2 The Deficit Model: Assumptions If the public knew more about the technical side of science, then the public would view issues as scientists do, and there would be fewer controversies. Emphasis is on science education and mass mediated popular science. Science compels action in policy debates and decisions are a matter of “sound science.”

3 Fully Informed Public vs. Miserly Public? Nothing Essentially Unique about Science Debates

4 1985 Too Many Choices? Availability Doesn’t Equal Use

5 2009 Too Many Choices? Availability Doesn’t Equal Use

6 1957: Is The Past That Different from Today? Science Literacy 12% of the public understood the scientific approach or method. On basic questions tapping knowledge of polio, fluoridation, radioactivity, and space satellites, only 1 in 6 could answer all four questions correctly. Only 38% knew that the Moon was smaller than the Earth and only 4% could correctly indicate the distance in miles between the Moon and the Earth. Michael, D.N. (1960). The Beginning of the Space Age and Public Opinion. Public Opinion Quarterly, ; Withey, S.B. (1959). Public opinion about science and scientists. Public Opinion Quarterly,

7 1957: Is The Past That Different from Today? Deference and Authority of Science Withey, S.B. (1959). Public opinion about science and scientists. Public Opinion Quarterly,

8 1957: Is The Past That Different from Today? Science Seen in Terms of Nationalism and Competitiveness Michael, D.N. (1960). The Beginning of the Space Age and Public Opinion. Public Opinion Quarterly, ; 1957: Looking to the future, what would you say is the real meaning of Sputnik to us here in America?

9 2008: Is The Past That Different from Today? Science Literacy National Science Board (2008). Chapter 7: Public Attitudes about Science and Technology. Science & Engineering Indicators.

10 2008: Is The Past That Different from Today? Deep Public Optimism and Trust in Science More than 70% of all American adults believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results. More than 85% of Americans agree that “even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.” On climate change, stem cell research, and food biotechnology, Americans believe scientists hold greater expertise, are less self interested, and should have greater say in decisions than industry leaders, elected officials, and/or religious leaders. Among institutions, only the military has greater trust than science. Analysis of 2006 General Social Survey; National Science Board (2008). Chapter 7: Public Attitudes about Science and Technology. Science & Engineering Indicators.

11 So What About that “Rising Tide of Anti-Science?” Themes to Consider 1. Science literacy has very little to do with public support, trust, perceptions, or deference to science. 2. Scientific organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, authority, and hold great communication capital but need to use it wisely and effectively. 3. Need to provide messages that emphasize shared common values and personal relevance rather than make it easy for people to re- interpret science in terms of conflict, complexity, or uncertainty. 4. When values not communicated, turns scientific evidence into just another political resource for competing interest groups. 5. Need to empower citizens to participate in collective decisions but need to be prepared for citizen decisions to cut against the self- interests of science.

12 The Focus on Public Dialogue: Consensus Conferences and Forums Two-way interaction between scientists and citizens. Upstream development of research (nanotechnology). Take advantage of localized understanding and knowledge. Increase citizen efficacy, sense of involvement, and fairness.

13 2007: The Framing Science Thesis

14 Framing: Perception is Reference Dependent Kahneman, D. (2003) In T. Frängsmyr (Ed.), Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2002 (pp ). Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Foundation.

15 Framing: Perception is Reference Dependent Kahneman, D. (2003) In T. Frängsmyr (Ed.), Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2002 (pp ). Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Foundation.

16 Framing and Science Communication Frames organize central ideas on an issue. They endow certain dimensions of a complex topic with greater apparent relevance than the same dimensions might appear to have under an alternative frame. Frames communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done. Communicated in short hand by catch-phrases, slogans, historical references, cartoons, and images.

17 Strategists use frames to define issues in ways that fit their policy and political goals. Journalists use frames to organize stories and appeal to intended audiences. Citizens use frames to make sense of complex topics, and to articulate their opinions. Accept media frames that fit existing interpretative schema. Scientists use frames to communicate to non-specialists in other fields, craft grant proposals, write popular books, make powerpoint slides, and talk to journalists. Framing and Science Communication

18 Framing as a Sociological Process: Media & Conversation Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2),

19 Science Policy Debates: Deductive Source of Frames Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

20 Where to Start? A Generalizable Frame Typology for Science FrameScience Issue Defined As…. Social progress Improving life, solving problems, master/harmony nature. Economic develop. Market benefits/competitiveness. Pandora’s box / Runaway science & fatalism Call for precaution in face of possible impacts/catastrophe; Out-of-control monster; or action is futile, path is chosen. Morality/ethics Right or wrong, crossing/respecting boundaries. Scientific uncertainty What is known or unknown; evoking or undermining consensus, “sound science,” peer-review. Public accountability Responsible use or abuse of power; “politicization,” citizen responsiveness. Third way/alternative path Compromise solution, middle way between opposing sides. Conflict/Strategy Game among elites, battle of groups/personalities.

21 Quality Communication? What Framing Can Do Can spin, distort, and deceive Engage in hype Promote policy preferences and mobilization Grow the audience for science, enhance understanding Go beyond conflict and promote dialogue

22 Stem Cell Research

23 Context Dependent Perception: Stem Cell as Social Progress JDRF 2001 As you may already know, a stem cell is the basic cell in the body from which all other cells arise. Medical researchers have been able to isolate stem cells from excess human embryos developed through in vitro fertilization and fetal tissue that has been donated to research. The medical researchers believe that human stem cells can be developed as replacement cells to cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, burns, or spinal cord problems. Do you favor the funding of stem cell research by the National Institutes of Health?" Nisbet Public Opinion Quarterly

24 Context Dependent Perception: Stem Cell Research as Moral Dilemma NCCB 2001 Stem cells are the basic cells from which all of a person’s tissues and organs develop. Congress is considering whether to provide funding for experiments using stem cells from human embryos. The live embryos would be destroyed in their first week of development to obtain these cells. Do you support or oppose using your federal tax dollars for such experiments? Nisbet Public Opinion Quarterly

25 The Stem Cell Debate: A Matter of Morality? This bill would support the taking of innocent human life... Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value...These boys and girls are not spare parts. My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs. I'm a strong supporter of science and technology, and believe they have the potential for incredible good -- to improve lives, to save life, to conquer disease.... ….I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.

26 The Stem Cell Debate: A Matter of Public Accountability

27 The 2007 iPS Discovery: A Third Way that is Accountable to the Public? By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries. The president believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life… -- White House Statement Allows research to “move forward with social consensus” and majority taxpayer support. William Hurlburt White House bioethics advisor

28 One is the extraordinary opportunity we have here to eradicate these diseases that are plaguing our friends and families, diseases like Alzheimer's, MS, diabetes. Our scientists are not going into this field because there's not adequate funding, there's not adequate resources. Or if they are, we're losing them to other countries like Singapore. I think the mistake is looking at this as just a cost. We should be looking at this as an investment for our economy. …As new treatments were found health care costs would go down. What history has shown us is that it's cheaper to--to cure a disease than it is to continue to treat a disease.” – Actor Brad Pitt on NBC Today Show, Oct. 26, 2004 The Stem Cell Debate: A Matter of Social Progress and Economic Competitiveness

29 Public Opinion Since 2004: Stable, Slight Majority Support

30 The Stem Cell Debate: Perception is Reference Dependent

31 The Stem Cell Debate: Perception as Partisan Dependent “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

32 Obama’s Stem Cell Speech: Straight from the Framing Playbook social progress..At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions…. economic competitiveness…When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives… morality and ethics…As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research - and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly... public accountability…As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research - and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly...

33 Conclusion: On Effectiveness, Ethics, and Directions Forward Science literacy has very little to do with public support, trust, perceptions, or deference to science. Scientific organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, authority, and hold great communication capital but need to use it wisely and effectively. This takes research. Need to provide messages that emphasize shared common values and personal relevance rather than make it easy for people to re-interpret science in terms of conflict, complexity, or uncertainty. When values not communicated, turns scientific evidence into just another political resource for competing interest groups.

34 Where to Start? A Generalizable Set of Frames FrameScience Issue Defined As…. Social progress Improving life, solving problems, master/harmony nature. Economic develop. Market benefits/competitiveness. Pandora’s box / Runaway science & fatalism Call for precaution in face of possible impacts/catastrophe; Out-of-control monster; or action is futile, path is chosen. Morality/ethics Right or wrong, crossing/respecting boundaries. Scientific uncertainty What is known or unknown; evoking or undermining consensus, “sound science,” peer-review. Public accountability Responsible use or abuse of power; “politicization,” citizen responsiveness. Third way/alternative path Compromise solution, middle way between opposing sides. Conflict/Strategy Game among elites, battle of groups/personalities.

35 Science Communication: Audience-Based Approach Spring 2008

36 Social Progress: The Building Block for Medical & Societal Advances

37 The Middle Way: Science and Religion Not in Conflict

38 2009 Darwin Anniversary: Maverick Communicators & Identity Politics Richard Dawkins & PZ Myers “If people think God is interesting, the onus is on them to show that there is anything there to talk about. Otherwise they should just shut up about it.” – -Richard Dawkins in Expelled trailer.

39 Conclusion: On Effectiveness, Ethics, and Directions Forward Primary duty to preserve accuracy in communication and to remain true to what is conventionally known about topic and to honestly address uncertainty. Ineffective and unethical to use authority of science to promote personal worldview or to denigrate and stereotype societal groups. Whenever possible, priority should be to use communication to empower lay public to participate in collective choices about science with an emphasis on dialogue and bridging polarization. Need to be prepared, however, that sometimes the decisions of informed citizens will go against the preferred outcomes of scientists.

40 “Matthew C. Nisbet” Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington DC.


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