A Glance at the October Issue of The Scientist: The Framing of Science
By JASON M. BRESLOW
The way most experts see it, "ignorance is at the root of conflict over science," write two communication scholars, but many "ignore the possibility that their communication efforts might be part of the problem."
The authors--Matthew C. Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University, and Dietram A. Scheufele, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison--say that for too long, scientists have clung to the "popular science" model, which puts the news media in charge of educating the public about science that is controversial, such as embryonic-stem-cell research.
"The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways," they write, adding that "if the public does not accept or recognize these facts, then the failure in transmission is blamed on journalists, 'irrational' beliefs, or both." The problem with that model, the authors argue, is that it neglects decades worth of research suggesting that "citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe, often making up their minds about a topic in the absence of knowledge."
Scientists, then, "must learn to focus on presenting, or 'framing,' their messages in ways that connect with diverse audiences," write Mr. Nisbet and Mr. Scheufele. "For example," they say, "when scientists are speaking to a group of people who think about the world primarily in economic terms, they should emphasize the economic relevance of science--such as, in the case of embryonic-stem-cell research, pointing out that expanded government funding would make the United States, or a particular state, more economically competitive."
The authors acknowledge the view that scientists should focus on research and leave the explanations to journalists and media-relations officers, saying that "in an ideal world, that's exactly what should happen." But in reality, they say, it is the researchers who ultimately end up in the public eye, giving interviews, writing books or articles, and advising policy makers.
"The stakes are high," the authors add. "If across the media, scientists and their organizations are not effective in getting their messages across, then others will be." The article, "The Future of Public Engagement," is available on the magazine's Web site.