Framing the Framers: Updating Science Communication

October 22, 2010 · 0 comments

Some of you may remember a lively panel on the Science of Communication at the 2008 AMS Annual Meeting. It featured a presentation by author Chris Mooney (audiovisual version here) from the trenches of the now full-blown communications quagmire of climate change politics.

Since communication is the overarching theme of the upcoming Annual Meeting in Seattle, it is interesting that a number of climate scientists are trying to shed central tenets of that session, which seemed so cutting-edge two years ago. As a result, judging from some of the scheduled papers, the shape of discussion on communications philosophy in Seattle is going to be quite different than it was three years earlier.

Recall that one of Mooney’s main take-home messages was based on the research of his friend, American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, on “frames” in communication.

Basically the idea is that information succeeds in becoming memorable, perhaps changing an audience’s thinking, if it is conveyed within an effective “frame.’ Framing can be a story, a useful reference, symbol, or metaphor, a style of delivery (folksy, serious, humorous, self-deprecating, authoritative). Is the science a story of underdogs prevailing? Of frontiers opening? Of prosperity ensuing? Is it scary? Exciting? Weird? Does the science resonate with preexisting perceptions and priorities? Success all depends on knowing your audience and the moment.

In a recent interview, Nisbet says bluntly that the typical frames employed to argue for action on climate mitigation have been ineffective or counterproductive, losing out to competing frames.

If refining frames sounds like it’s more about politics than science to you, then you’re not alone. A number of scientists seem to be growing wary of this focus on framing. The Symposium on Policy and Socio-Economic Research at the upcoming AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle will delve into these frustrations with framing. Speaking directly to the problem of fear-mongering that Nisbet mentions in the interview linked above, Renee Lertzman of Portland State University (4:45 p.m., Tuesday) will discuss how the psychology of anxiety “can evoke complicated, often contradictory emotional and cognitive responses that may hinder or support efforts for effective communications” about the uncertain future. That goes for climate prediction as well as weather forecasting.

The response to poor framing of climate change science has lately turned away from “better” framing. Some climate researchers are instead trying to move beyond “framing” as much as possible (although most admittedly are probably still looking for a new “frame”, like human health concerns, to package the message about climate change).

Judy Curry of Georgia Tech gets to the heart of this problem in a recent post on her blog. She points out that a lot of climate scientists see their field as an intricate puzzle: even when a few pieces are missing or loose, the overall picture remains clear. Many outsiders, however, see a house of cards, and if you pull one piece out, the whole house ought to crumble. Which frame you use affects how you react to various affirmations and criticisms of the science, cleaving public opinion further. For Curry, frames are thus fundamentally flawed ways of dealing with a science of such complexity:

both frames are too simplistic and the use of both frames are heuristics used in the absence of formal logical arguments. The puzzle frame is better suited to the complexity of the problem, but as a mental model it can be subject to many cognitive biases.

But while Curry seeks better logic in communication, others are abandoning the frames-first strategy because the political climate has superseded it. They’re realizing (as quantified in survey findings from the George Mason and Yale Universities) that climate is a partisan political issue now and that the science is increasingly ancillary.

Richard Rood’s recent Wunderblog series (continued here, here, and here) deals with this politicization by leaving framing far behind in search of the proper role of scientists in communicating about climate change:

[T] politicization of climate change…means that there is not some piece of magic, something that we have being saying wrong, that if we say it correctly, more convincingly, with a preponderance of knowledge and rationality – if we say it correctly, then we can move forward….Notions that the way forward is simply a matter of communication are naïve.

Rather than looking for the ideal frame for the findings, Rood argues that scientists need to back off of some heavy-handed approaches.

The use of the heavy weight of scientific investigation in such a political argument, I assert, serves just as much to maintain the politically useful perception of the arrogance of scientists and elitism of education as it does to correct misconceptions. This continual flow of knowledge and education from scientists engaged in this political game fuels the words of those making the argument that there is a conspiracy to deny personal choice – forced vegetarianism, a breathing tax, small dangerous cars …

You’ll see such ideas echoed at the AMS Annual Meeting during the Monday session on “Confronting Challenges in Climate Communication.” P. Sol Hart and E.C. Nisbet, for instance, write in their abstract (2:15 p.m., Monday):

The increase in political polarization suggests that there may be weaknesses in the traditional model for science communication …which assumes that increased communication and awareness about scientific issues will move public consensus towards scientific consensus and reduce political polarization around scientific-based policy.

Rood argues for more focused communication:

It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

Similarly, Hart and Nisbet argue for segmenting audiences more carefully rather than blasting the same news items to everyone. Their research shows that some readers respond significantly better to articles that report localized, not overseas, implications of climate change.

Rood argues that scientists will be better heard with more messengers: encouraging a diversification of expert voices beyond IPCC, such as young researchers. He extends this openness to the structure of the climate research enterprise itself, proposing that it become self correcting in public, inviting outside participation, and allowing the research agenda to be partly “pulled” forward by the needs of the public.

In Seattle, Jean Goodwin (1:45 p.m., Monday) provides some psychological basis for Rood’s proposals.  Addressing the need to rebuild trust in science after the theft of emails last year from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Goodwin makes a strong statement about looking beyond mere framing of information. She identifies framing as an appeal to “peripheral cognitive processes,” half-aware, half-intentional means the brain uses to conserve central logical processing, and says that manipulations of frames

…are unlikely to be completely successful in increasing trust in climate scientists. Some cognitive heuristics such as confirmation or “my side” bias will tend to further entrench the positions of those who already distrust scientists’ messages. Further, in a controversy as heated as that over global climate change, appeals to peripheral processing may be ineffective because when detected and called out by opponents, the communication techniques may appear manipulative and even fallacious. Not only will such messages be unpersuasive, they will tend to further increase distrust in the communicators.

Instead, she suggests that

communicators can earn trust by openly taking responsibility for the possibility of errors and unforeseen consequences.

She compares the situation to used car salesmen, who use guarantees and other demonstrations of responsibility to show customers they need not fear the sales hype is aimed at hiding lemons on the car lot. In short,

to earn the public’s trust in their risk communication, scientists must accept a risk themselves–the risk of being shown to be wrong.

While this might feel like too big a risk to take, it actually resonates well with recent research by Michael Jones, whose Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma was on the role of narrative in climate change communication. Jones is far from advocating an abandonment of framing: rather he embraces the challenge of communicating within a consistent, coherent narrative structure. But narrative usually has heroes and villains, Jones points out:

Villains tend to be important in policy narratives, but I found something else in my dissertation that actually shocked me. The hero really matters. The hero in each of the stories that I put out there, as the respondent grows more affectionate toward them and likes them more, the more they believe everything in the story, the more willing they are to accept policy prescriptions, the more willing they were to believe that climate change is real, the more willing they were to believe that everything they were told was true. Nothing else performed quite as successfully as that variable.

Taking risks and assuming responsibility is the essence of heroic action, which brings us back to Goodwin’s upcoming presentation:

[T]o earn the public’s trust in their risk communication, scientists must accept a risk themselves–the risk of being shown to be wrong.