Scientists Talking to the Public

By Sean Carroll | April 9, 2007 12:44 pm

There’s a sprawling blog conversation going on at ScienceBlogs and elsewhere, sparked by an article by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney in Science magazine. Ironically, as I’m not the first to point out, it’s only available to subscribers (although there is a press release). The origin of the irony is that the subject of the article is how scientists should talk to the general public. In particular, Nisbet and Mooney focus on “framing” — putting whatever you want to talk about into a context that strikes an appropriate chord in your audience.

Much back-and-forth — see long posts by coturnix, Orac, and Nisbet to get some of the flavor — without reaching a simple consensus. Shocking, I know. But, despite the noise along the way, these conversations really to help make progress.

My view on these issues is incredibly complex and well-thought-out, but sadly the margin of this blog post is too narrow to contain it. Instead I’ll just highlight something that is probably obvious: a big reason for the disagreements is the attempt to find a set of blanket principles governing a widely diverse and highly idiosyncratic set of circumstances. Talking to the public involves a tremendous array of competing pressures, and how best to balance them will certainly depend on the specifics of the situation. Are scientists bad communicators, when they are talking to the public? Very often, yes. Is it important to be better? Absolutely, both for altruistic and self-interested reasons. Should they compromise telling the truth in order to win people over? No. Does making an effort to engage people on their own level necessarily mean that the truth must be compromised? No. Should they expect the same kind of arguments to work with the public as work with their colleagues? No. Are the standards of acceptable levels of precision and detail different when talking to specialists and non-specialists? Of course. Is connecting to people’s pre-conceived notions, and using them to your advantage as a communicator, somehow unsavory? No. Should we pander to beliefs that we think are false? Certainly not. Etc., etc.; every situation is going to be different.

But, in the absence of any actually helpful suggestions, I will take the opportunity to point to this recent post by Charlie Petit in the (awesome in its own right) Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The punchline: science journalism in the United States is in the midst of a catastrophic downsizing. In the wake of the news that Mike Lafferty of the Columbus Dispatch has accepted a buyout, Petit mentions other periodicals that have recently decimated their science coverage, including Time, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News (I’ll add the LA Times to that list). Science sections have dropped from 95 less than twenty years ago to around 40 today.

I’m just saying.

  • Juha Haataja

    Thanks for an insightful analysis of how to discuss science in public. The news about reduction in science reporting in top magazines is shocking.
    Here in Finland the situation is currently somewhat better, but I fear we may have a similar downturn. Science is almost non-existent on the web sites of most newspapers, for example.

  • Blake Stacey

    Out of all the brouhaha, you’re one of the first people to try providing some actual data!

  • thm

    I think everyone in this discussion agrees that scientists aren’t communicating to the public as effectively as we’d like. The question being raised here is why.

    To stretch an electronics analogy perhaps a bit too far: most of the effort to improve scientists’ communications has presumed that the problem is that the signal-to-noise ratio is too low; scientists aren’t being sufficiently clear when they talk to the public. What the concept of framing brings to the picture is the realization that the failure of the message to get through is an impedance-matching problem. Frames are like input impedance.

    Success, for scientists, is not a matter of dumbing down or distorting our message, or of lying. It’s about speaking in ways that resonate with the public. The right-wing think tanks and talking head pundits are like a giant impedance matching network. Scientists need one too.

  • JP Stormcrow

    My view on these issues is incredibly complex and well-thought-out, but sadly the margin of this blog post is too narrow to contain it.

    Bummer! Now we have to wait several hundred years for someone else to arrive at your view, and even then most of us will not understand it. Gee, if only someone could explain your view in terms most of us could understand without pandering or compromising their essential truth… I know, quite the challenge.

    Seriously, I do think that it is clear that with the pressures on, and continuing changes to the traditional media, these types of roles will only survive at the largest general media outlets – and nothing from “the science side” can reverse that trend. To me the trick is to get some manner of aggregator and content producer (or maybe an AP for science) that can deliver quality science content to more traditonal media at a cost they will pay.

    To reverse the more fundamental trend requires a lot of basic spade work on establishing the market for science reporting (i.e. making people want to read it.) This needs to start way, way back in the educational system and will involve new ways of conceptualizing the importance of science to matters of daily concern for most people. Having science-supportive governments is a huge help here as well.

  • Andy

    Mooney and Nisbet are right on the money. I’m in the News Service at UC Davis, and we offer media training to faculty, key staff and graduate students — a colleague and I taught a class of grad students last week. The most important thing we try to get across to scientists is that you have to understand your audience and find a way for them to connect with your story. I haven’t read all the posts on this yet… work intervening a bit, y’know… but this is much needed for the scientific community.

  • Moshe

    I am confused about one hidden assumption. Any reason science advocacy should be the work of scientists only, or even mostly? sure, most scientists are probably not good at public relations (though some are), the same way that most plumbers probably don’t play the violin very well (though some probably do). Performing in the political sphere requires different set of skills, if the situation calls for the type of advocacy that does not depend on detailed technical knowledge (the type discussed in the article), maybe it is a good idea to leave that job to the professionals.

    (but I am still waiting for Sean’s analysis, in my browser the margins of the blog posts are pretty wide…),

  • Sean

    Moshe, I certainly don’t think that only scientists should have this responsibility. But they certainly do bring some things to the table that can’t be reproduced, both in terms of expertise and authority. Climate scientists are much more likely to be asked to testify before Congress than science journalists.

    My obliquely-stated point above was: Nobody thinks we should lie. And nobody denies that we should adapt our message to the appropriate audience. But sometimes those platitudinous directives run into each other! Or at least appear to. And the way to best reconcile them will depend on the details, not on an overarching theory in any simple way.

  • Rufus

    It could be that the culture of science is such that
    talking about research in public is looked at
    as self-promotion and frowned upon. Usually the only
    scientists that the public is aware of are those who
    are treated as celebrities, and who make money from books and tv appearances.

  • 44now

    When Al Gore spoke at the AGU meeting in December (06)–his main point was that scientists need to start speaking up and communicating with our neighbors friends, etc. The question is really *HOW* do we do it? I can barely convince my mother that there is anthropogenic global warming–and it wasn’t until Oprah had a show about it that “soccer moms” I know even asked me about it!

  • Moshe

    Sean, I agree with your point, though I must say the issue is a not much different from other essentially political issues, for example that of talking about religion where your position as I understand it (and which I agree with) seems more towards the “telling the truth” side of the spectrum. Maybe that tendency is one of the skills we lack…

    Another point I was trying to make is that science advocacy, for the issues discussed in the article, is everyone’s business. Those are really issues of public policy more than science issues per se. Because of that reason I am not sure that the authority of the expert is needed. I think that in Al Gore’s movie (which I strongly disliked) he probably came off as a real authority, more so than any of the climate scientists (and I think he did testify before congress). Sounding authoritative in the political arena is a skill, takes both talent and practice, and it probably has little to do with any real authority. Better play the game by its rules.

  • Ellipsis

    being on the front page all the time is not necessarily always a good thing (just ask Alberto Gonzales) or always the right goal to seek. Science (or at least publicly-funded science) is the servant of the public, and its goals should be to answer the questions the public asks of it, and also to anticipate future ones. Note that many highly-technical areas that are incredibly important to society, e.g. reducing the size of the logic units inside CPUs, are not on the front pages, yet the public does generally understand that they are important. Blogs like this, and many other sources, are helpful when people have questions. As scientists, our main job is not to focus on how we can make our voices heard louder, but how we can better serve the public by answering the questions that they ask of us.

  • Scott Aaronson

    As scientists, our main job is not to focus on how we can make our voices heard louder, but how we can better serve the public by answering the questions that they ask of us.

    Ellipsis, I’m trying to imagine what your philosophy means in practical terms. Should the NSF set up a series of websites like “Ask A Differential Geometer,” where members of the public get to submit questions that then determine the research agenda for the field?

    Not that the website itself would be a bad idea — far from it! Indeed, I spend much of my time these days doing exactly what you suggest: “serving the public” by answering whatever questions about theoretical computer science they ask me on my blog. But that’s an extremely different activity from research. As I’ve learned from long experience, if I think up a question in an area of science far from my own, 95% of the time the answer will be one of

    “If you’d thought about it for 10 seconds, you’d see it’s totally obvious that…”
    “Your question is meaningless because…”
    “It’s been well-known to every undergrad since the 1920’s that…”
    “Not only does no one know, but a vastly easier question that we still don’t have any clue about is…”

    In other words, it can take years of training to learn how to ask the right questions!

  • Ellipsis


    True. I mainly just meant “answering questions” in an abstract sense, i.e. just doing our jobs as scientists rather than trying to play too much to specific crowds in order to try to attract attention. (Not that I think many people are trying to do the latter, I think generally almost all scientists do this anyway.) Directly answering questions, like on a blog, is of course also good too. Nothing too controversial here.

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  • Blake Stacey

    Hmm, I seem to be stuck in a spam queue. Oh, well — I’m sure I’d be embarrassed by what I said, anyway.

  • Clark

    I agree completely with you. While one can always point to the scientists who do a poor job communicating, realistically the problem isn’t the scientists it is the journalists and perhaps teachers. But journalists probably are the worst. All aspects of journalism in the US at this stage are bad. Poor international coverage. Poor science coverage. More emphasis on sensationalism than content. The idea of “balance” being finding someone who agrees and someone who disagrees.

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  • Greg Laden

    I agree with most of your yes/no bulleted points, but I’d like to add a couple of nuances.

    First, the way Nesbit and Mooney and people in social psychology and related fields use “framing” is really the same idea as “spinning” … making something sound better to a particular audience. But the idea originally comes from an idea in anthropology (called Frame Analysis) that has more to do with how people find common meaning in communication. See:

    On communication: There are contexts in which scientists do communicate with their colleagues in the same way (or at least an overlapping way) that they would communicate with the public. This presumes that there are a lot of different “publics” … audiences …. ranging in background and sophistication. In many fields, scientists have to communicate to fellow scientists who are not in their own field, sometimes in interdisciplinary work, sometimes in grant proposal writing.

    I have maintained that scientists as a whole should not be assumed to be poor communicators.


    The really big issue is probably the downsizing you point out. The paper you point out does not have the data to support that assertion. Nisbet and Mooney also make this assertion and I don’t think they have any data either (I don’t remember). But as more and more people believe this someone is going to have to go find out if it is true and, if it is, why it is happening.

    Nice post!

  • Clarke

    Welcome to post-rational science!

    Stem cell research is not solely a scientific issue. It is the moral issue that is being debated. Scientists have no more of a claim on the morality of medical research than any other member of society.

    The evolution/creationism debate is also not one of science, but one of philosophy. There is no science of ‘creationism’ because it is not falsifiable. It should not be taught in science class, but scientists have no more insight than the next guy on philosophy.

    The climate change debate is one of science and is still very much debated in scientific circles. While there is little argument that the world is warmer today than 200 years ago, CO2 is a ‘greenhouse’ gas and that it is increasing, nearly everything else about the science is being contested by qualified scientists.

    The IPCC reports are not all-encompassing summations of the science, but targeted ‘cherry-picks’ in which equally valid interpretations of the data are discarded for interpretations that fit the preconceived assumptions of those driving the process. Inconvenient data that is contrary to the notion that CO2 is the primary driver of global climate change is simply ignored in the process.

    The fact that Nisbet and Mooney have already ‘framed’ the science of global climate change in a less than factual way, indicates the true nature and purpose of their argument. The purpose is to forward an agenda through deception.

    As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate what we know and do not know about the world around us. This can be done with energy, skill and enthusiasm! But it is the opposite of all that science stands for to persuade people through emotional rhetoric, as Nisbet and Mooney are practicing and encouraging.

    If that is your goal, become a lawyer, because sooner or later you will lose all credibility as a scientist.

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  • Greg Laden

    I don’t agree with several of your points. For instance, the core of the “global warming” issue is the role of anthropogeneic release of CO2 as a cause of warming. This is not seriously disputed.

    With respect to evolution, your point is correct but the discordance between religious views and scientific views, as you suggest (we are in agreement here, I think) a problem for the religious leaders, institutions, individuals, etc. to deal with.

    The stem cell issue is obviously tricker. Personally, I think that the concept that a stem cell is a person, or that discarded embryos are protected, is absurd. Across the globe this varies considerably across cultures. The fact that the degree to which there is public and political weight behind the idea that a jar of cells is protected by the US constitution is an outcome of the widespread evangelical fundamentalism in the US, and the degree to which this issue is important is roughly correlated to this effect, at least according to a stem cell guy I just heard on PBS a moment ago…

    So while evangelical fundamentalism may be some kind of a “right” it is also a huge social and political problem.

  • Eric

    The proponents of “framing” have some interesting points to make, but this is the third time in recent years they’ve come around making these claims. The first was George Lakoff with “Don’t Think of an Elephant” in 2004. Then came Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shallenberger with “Death of Environmentalism.” The playbook for these guys was:

    * Make a big stir by accusing some portion of the “the establishment” of screwing up their communications

    * Promise to solve the problem, if only some funders will cough up big bucks for research. Use copious buzzwords to describe the research you intend to conduct.

    * Disappear without making any actual specific recommendations for what the target of their critique could do better.

    Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have followed the first two steps of this playbook to the letter. Let’s hope they break the pattern and actually put forward some useful suggestions on how the scientific community can do a better job.

    If not, start the clock ticking on their 15 minutes.


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  • Scott

    I found a good idea for communicating science to the adult public.
    add beer


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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