Friday, June 01, 2007

Talking science to non-scientists

Debate continues in the blogosphere on how to talk to non-scientists about science, especially when the science can inform a policy debate. As a scientifically-trained conservation advocate, I routinely use scientific findings in policy debates, and have views on this subject. The vehemence of this debate is surprising, and I think the debate has become inflamed partly because people are talking at cross purposes. So…

I wonder if it’s foolhardy to attempt to state succinctly the core arguments for and against what’s being called “framing” science. Probably, so here goes:

Framing: The best way to talk about science to non-scientists is to extract accurately the core results of a scientific subject and present them in a comfortable context. This builds trust and acceptance, encourages listening, and minimizes the impact of ideological or other filters. This approach is especially important when policy implications exist, because that’s when it’s hardest to get people to listen to and understand science.

Against framing: The right way to talk about science to non-scientists is to display science including assumptions, evidence and uncertainty. This is much like talking to scientists, except understanding can be encouraged by helpful examples, translation of jargon, and engaging presentation. This approach is especially important when policy implications exist, because including any opinions or spin casts doubt on the reliability of the science.

There you have it, the blogfish view of the essential pro and con sides of the argument. For what it’s worth. If I have them wrong, perhaps somebody smarter on these subjects will do a better job of stating the essential framing pro and con.

Anyone out there who wants to comment? Or perhaps blogfish is too small of a pond to attract any fish.


Anonymous said...

Did you watch C&M's latest video of their presentation? I'd be interested in your thoughts about it.

Mark Powell said...

C&M's talk was clear, and explained their points well, I thought. I wonder why so many scintists disagree so strongly. I have been familiar with framing from other work, and framing is an essential part of communication.

I think there's some argument at cross-purposes going on, which is why I tried to craft a concise statement capturing the essentials of both sides. That seems useful right now.

I think many of the scientists opposed to framing are taking a strong righteous stand as though public communication should operate with the same rules as science. Not gonna work.

You don't have to lie or spin to frame an argument. It's all about talking so that people can hear and understand a point without dismissing it out of hand.

This from my probably imperfect understanding of framing.

waterwords said...

Good blog post, thanks.

Experts of every kind struggle to communicate with lay people about their area of expertise. But the stakes are much higher for scientists that are exploring issues that have profound implications for the wellbeing of mankind.

I do not understand why some scientists are so averse to making an effort to making themselves understood, or reject that scientific principles and processes can be applied to determining how people respond to language the same way we try to understand what bird and whale songs mean.


Anonymous said...

Part of the difficulty is that scientists are not trained to talk to non-scientists. Take a trip to any academic institution that offers advanced degrees in Marine Science or Oceanography. How many of those offer courses in presentation, written or oral, to non-scientists? Of those few that do, how many make it a mandatory part of graduate training?

Much of the communication burden falls on the shoulders of policy staff at various state and federal levels.