A Reply to Former House Science Chair Sherwood Boehlert


On May 3, as part of the annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, retired Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), the former chair of the House Science & Technology committee, gave the keynote William Carey lecture (full text). In his address, he devoted several pages of his speech to our Policy Forum article at Science and our Sunday Outlook commentary at the Washington Post.

We've long admired Congressman Boehlert's work on science, technology, and the environment, and we deeply respect his commitment to scientific advice and bi-partisan policy making. The scientific community lost a very important advocate when he retired last year.

Below the jump we offer a reply to the critiques made by Boehlert in his speech. We are thrilled that he has respectfully drawn further attention to our central arguments, and we see this as a great opportunity to expand upon our basic points.

Point One: Boehlert states that "Nisbet and Mooney assume...that all scientists share the same policy views on key issues and that the world would always be a better place if the public went along with the policy views offered by scientists--faulty assumptions, in my book."

Our Reply: On the contrary, we deliberately selected a handful of relatively non-controversial science issues (non-controversial among scientists, that is) to use as examples. Scientists broadly agree that evolution, and only evolution, should be taught in public school science courses, that we should expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and that we urgently need to do something about global warming. In these cases, framing can be used to activate wider public attention to the problem of climate change, or alternatively, to shape public support for the teaching of evolution or for increased stem cell funding.

On other issues such as plant biotechnology or nanotechnology, where there is much less consensus on the risks, the benefits, and the right policy actions to take, framing also plays a very important role. Indeed, under conditions of lingering uncertainty and limited public knowledge, the public will rely heavily on frames to make sense of these issues. Determining across audience groups which frames are likely to generate greater public interest, trust, and understanding remains centrally important.

Boehlert adds his skepticism that the world would always be better off if the public went along with scientists. He may well be right about this. However, scientists, like any other group, have a right to defend their interests--in this case, their interest in ensuring that their knowledge has an impact on public opinion and political decision-making. So long as they are not misrepresenting scientific information, they shouldn't apologize for drawing upon research in the social sciences in order to become more effective in their public engagement efforts.

Point Two: Boehlert states that "Nisbet and Mooney are, without saying so, basically offering advice on how scientists should frame arguments on what are largely policy questions--what to do about climate change, whether to support stem cell research--not science questions. They're silent about any distinction between science and policy, which is a problem."

Our Reply: Our relatively brief Science article was indeed silent on this distinction, but we are well aware of it. See Mooney's book The Republican War on Science for details.

It's true that we are offering scientists advice on how to frame policy questions--but only in very general ways. On evolution we do indeed support a specific policy: teach only evolution in public school science classes. But then, so do all the leading scientific organizations.

On embryonic stem cell research, we are in favor of more support for research, as is most of the scientific community. And we are opposed to President Bush's current restrictive policy. But being pro-research (and opposed to Bush's policy) is not the same as dictating a specific funding policy, funding levels, etcetera, that should replace Bush's policy. We leave such choices up to decision-makers (recognizing, however, that framing will play a central role in determining the policies that lawmakers adopt).

Similarly, on climate change, we are pro-"action" to address the problem, but that's different from supporting a specific bill or treaty. Mooney, for example, is skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol's ability to meaningfully curtail global warming pollution. So, once again, we are not supporting highly detailed, specific policies. We're merely weighing in on the side of most scientists that global warming is an urgent problem and should be dealt with.

Point Three: Boehlert states that "Nisbet and Mooney seem to assume that the only audience that ever matters in science-inflected policy matters is the general public."

Our Reply: This is a misunderstanding. We're talking about how science gets communicated through the mass media to the wider American public. Average citizens are influenced by media depictions, but then, so are politicians. We all are.

Moreover, on climate change, one of the central factors delaying major policy action is that elected officials look at the polls and see that the public still does not consider the issue to be a national priority. If elected officials are going to work together to get something done on climate change, they have to see signs that spending political capital on the issue (relative to other problems) is going to result in a return with voters.

This is where framing is so central to any shift in the political culture. For example, how do you elevate concern and attention to climate change among a Republican base that, according to polls, rates the issue as dead last among 20 other political topics, behind even flag burning? One strategy, led by E.O Wilson, is to team with religious leaders and recast action on climate change as a moral duty.

Point Four: Boehlert states that "Especially on issues that have a technical component, the public may look to its elected leaders, among others, to provide some guidance, and elected leaders have a responsibility to know more than the average 'man on the street.'"

Our Reply: We agree, and Rep. Boehlert has distinguished himself among elected leaders in this regard. However, he assuredly ranks among the most well-informed of all our elected representatives on matters of science. For many members of Congress, we doubt that they know much more than the average citizen.

Everyone is a cognitive miser. Politicians, like many Americans, often lack the motivation and the ability to be well informed about the science-related issues they come across or are asked to vote on. Accordingly, they will rely heavily upon frames, in combination with their social backgrounds, to make sense of complex issues.

For example, stem cell advocates report that one of the most effective appeals to elected officials has been the personal testimonials of patients. Just as with the general public, this "social progress" frame serves as the opening for discussing the science behind research and the need for more funding.

Similarly, in the debate over the teaching of evolution, many state legislators and school board members are swayed by arguments focused on damage to their states' national reputation and/or to the economy if they support anti-evolution initiatives.

Point Five: Boehlert states that "I do want to emphasize one other point that may be at odds with the sense that scientists could take away from Nisbet and Mooney. I think it's vital that scientists be extremely open about levels of uncertainty when talking to policy makers."

Our Reply: We strongly agree. In fact, in our articles we suggest that a few stem cell and global warming advocates have gone beyond the science in their claims and that these framing tactics jeopardize public trust and credibility.

Yet, even when called before Congress to give expert testimony, framing on the part of scientists is unavoidable. In any form of communication, whether a journal article, a PowerPoint presentation, or congressional testimony, uncertainty is conveyed selectively at best. There's a difference in how scientists talk among themselves in the lab, how they write about their work in a peer-reviewed context, and how they describe research as an expert witness. This is a social and political reality.

When science gets conveyed in a popular form, what replaces many technical details are frames. In fact, if you look at the language of science-related legislation, funding authorization, or even expert testimony, science is typically described via the frames of "social progress" and "economic development." According to these interpretations, we invest in science and listen to expert advice because science has a track record of making our lives better and is central to the economic competitiveness of the nation. For lawmakers, in the face of uncertainty or conflicting expert advice, these specific interpretations make the decision to fund or approve science initiatives easier.


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I was at the lecture, and although a previous constituent and supporter of Representative Boehlert, I was disappointed in his interpretation of the framing science articles. It seemed as though he had missed several key points, most importantly the distinction between framing and spin. You have kindly corrected his remarks to show Matt's actual last name, but Boehlert did indeed refer to him as Nesbit. Thanks for your responses to some of the comments in his speech, it is great to see the framing concept continue to be fleshed out.

I'm also glad to see framing get more traction. I'm curious, for my own social science research, about what advice you would give to framers of science on how they conceptually construct their audiences? My interest is in global warming denial, and it seems that some people simply are out of the reach of the "soft" persuasion of frames.

Now, I happen to think that doesn't mean they shouldn't be part of a framing strategy. I think they need to be catered for -- but in a aggressive way. At some point, surely we need to play hardball? (And this would presumably include a robust media strategy.)

Is anyone writing on this in the journals?

First, I'm not sure the term "denialist" is very productive. Take for example what happened when Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman used the term in her column: The Drudge Report linked to it, and her use of the term became the focus of attention rather than her argument about the urgency of climate change.

Second, in any communication campaign, there will be a segment of the public that you are unable to activate. There will always be a small segment of the public who dispute that human activities are contributing to a global temperature rise. Their belief is grounded in a very strong ideological worldview that deflects any counter-attitudinal communication messages.

The focus of communication resources should be on the vast swing public on global warming, citizens who think that maybe something is going on (though not sure what or if scientists agree), but who also may not consider the issue a major concern, or rank it as a top 5 political priority.