From the Lab to the Loudspeaker

Countering Misleading Scientific Claims

At a CAP event Matthew Nesbit and Chris Mooney suggest better ways to "frame" science and avoid misunderstanding.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus on the hot-button issues of global warming, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research. Yet the facts alone have not been enough to convince large segments of the American public. That’s why the Center for American Progress held an event June 19 to explore new strategies for more effective science communication.

The featured speakers, Matthew C. Nisbet, professor of communication at American University, and Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of the Republican War on Science, argued that scientists should avoid overly technical language and instead “frame” scientific issues by emphasizing shared values.

Research shows that citizens usually lack the necessary information or inclination to carefully weigh scientific evidence. Instead, they rely on perceptual frames to determine what arguments to listen to and what to tune out. These frames are used to break down complex issues and debates in ways that resonate with core values and assumptions.

For example, Nisbet and Mooney noted that those who dispute the science on global warming and evolution have successfully advanced the frame of “scientific uncertainty” (along with other frames), which scientists unwittingly reinforce by engaging in technical discussions with their opponents. On evolution, scientists also have sometimes belittled or insulted religious beliefs.

To counter misinformation on these issues, Nisbet and Mooney suggested that scientists and their allies adopt compelling frames of their own. In particular, they recommended frames that emphasize “social progress,” “economic development,” and “public accountability.” Advocates of embryonic stem cell research, for example, successfully used frames of social progress and economic development in passing recent ballot initiatives in Missouri and California.

Developing compelling frames to communicate science is especially important in today’s political and media environment, Nisbet and Mooney explained. The Bush administration has repeatedly censored and distorted scientific conclusions to fit its political agenda. Once, for example, the White House so misleadingly altered a global warming report by the Environmental Protection Agency that the agency’s climate scientists decided not to publish it. And the media, in seeking to establish “balance,” oftentimes present scientific issues as debates between two equally credible sources, even if scientific consensus falls down overwhelmingly on one side.

In introducing the speakers, Joseph Romm, CAP senior fellow, also faulted the scientific community’s reluctance to embrace communication with popular culture. Noting the famed late astronomer Carl Sagan, Romm remarked that few scientists today are able to take complicated ideas and competently present them in simplified, but accurate terms. Moreover, the scientific community often places a stigma on those who do enter the public fray.

This must change if we are to foster greater scientific understanding. With the dangers of global warming, the possibility that some children will not be properly taught evolution, and the opportunities presented by embryonic stem cell research, the stakes are too high to cede any more ground to science distorters.