New Paradigm for Science Communication
The Culture Wars Teach Us a Lesson
We’ll be hearing it a lot today: 50 years ago, the Soviets launched Sputnik. In the ensuing melee, the U.S. government established an exceedingly strong relationship with the nation’s scientific community and relied upon its expertise to find a way to increase our national scientific and technological competitiveness. Science-in-policymaking reached a zenith—and then started a precipitous decline.
The culture wars exploded. Our national politics became more polarized and contentious. Science fights erupted regularly around environmental, regulatory, and moral issues. In some cases science advisers were even fired.
We’ve gone from the age of Edward R. Murrow to the age of Bill O’ReillyAnd then came the Bush administration, demonstrating just how large the gap between a president and the nation’s knowledge base can really get. Today we look around anguished and feel sorely tempted to label the 1950s and early 1960s a golden age of scientific inquiry married to effective government policymaking.
Yet it would be a serious mistake to blame political polarization alone for a declining influence of the scientific community on U.S. policy. It is certainly true that science suffered along with many other forms of serious expertise over the past several decades, beaten down by our divisive politics. But let’s not forget that something else has vastly changed since the 1950s and 1960s as well: the nature of the media.
We’ve gone from the age of Edward R. Murrow to the age of Bill O’Reilly. And if we seek the reasons that scientists have seen their influence on policy decline—and the gulf between themselves and society widen—we can’t neglect that there’s been very little adaptation on the part of the scientific community to a radically different, and far more challenging, media environment.
Two decades ago we truly had “papers of record.” And if you sat down to watch the evening news at 6 p.m., you pretty much had to opt for network news coverage, including coverage of science-related issues that were seriously explored. Today, in contrast, newspapers are struggling, but we have millions of blogs, ideologically driven news outlets matching every political persuasion, hundreds of cable channels, and Google News to sift our headlines.
The consequence is profound: Citizens who don’t care about science now don’t have to hear about it at all. They don’t need to stick their fingers in their ears and go, “la la la.” They can simply steer away from that particular channel, or from that particular nook of the Internet. They can just watch the Food Network.
As a result, scientists can no longer assume that a responsible and high-minded media will treat their ideas with the decorum and seriousness they deserve and deliver them up to policymakers and the public for somber consideration. Instead, partisan media will convey diametrically opposed versions of where science actually stands on any contentious subject—even as most of the public (and many policymakers) tune out science more or less completely in favor of entertainment, sports, and other media choices.
It’s a perfect recipe for the declining influence of science amid political polarization, misinformation, and unedifying discourse at media outlets—many of which take a generally antagonistic approach to the scientific community, depicting it as a convocation of liberal eggheads. So should scientists and their defenders simply wring their hands and complain about this dismal state of affairs? Or should they instead take steps to adapt to the modern media environment to ensure their continuing relevance and influence?
Fortunately, a new dialogue and perhaps even a new paradigm are now emerging about how to communicate science, through the media, to policymakers, and the broader public. It’s epitomized by The Scientist magazine’s October cover story, in which two communication scholars, Matthew Nisbet of American University and Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, explain why scientists must strategically “frame” their knowledge to make it relevant to the diverse audiences that draw information from our fragmented media system.
Nisbet and Scheufele explain in detail what the modern media really means for the transmission of scientific information, and how scientists must adjust accordingly. The gist of their argument is directed straight at scientific institutions, which they say must pare down scientific information and emphasize those aspects of an issue that will resonate with the values and dispositions of diverse audiences.
The two scholars built upon some initial ideas about “framing science” that Nisbet and I first suggested in an April article in Science magazine (subscription required except for members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), but they carry the argument much further by outlining a comprehensive communications strategy for scientists. This isn’t “spin,” it’s good communication. It increases receptivity to a scientific message.
An accompanying editorial titled “Scientists on Science,” by The Scientist editor Richard Gallagher, acknowledges as much and whole-heartedly endorses the approach, conceding that scientists simply cannot remain passive in the transmission of knowledge. They’ve got to be heavily involved, from beginning to end.
The truth is facts don’t ever speak for themselves. Especially in today’s media environment, they need a messenger, a skilled one. Furthermore, if you don’t frame your knowledge and make it relevant in today’s communication environment, you must get ready to be ignored—or, worse, to have someone else frame your scientific research for you, perhaps in the most unflattering of ways.
Fifty years after Sputnik, then, there’s much that we must do to re-establish a strong influence of scientists on policy. Indeed, we need our scientists now more than ever to ready us for the myriad problems facing humanity. But there are some areas in which science can also help itself. Communication is one of them. That’s why scientists and scientific institutions would be well advised today to consider the advice offered by Nisbet and Scheufele. Scientists have already proven they know how to research, how to think. Now is the time for learning how to speak to all Americans.
Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
Comments on this article