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Matthew Nisbet: How "Framing" Shapes Public Dialogue on Science Policy Issues
We are, by nature, "cognitive misers," meaning that we seek shortcuts for understanding the massive amounts of information in the media. Political strategists, scientists, and the news media thus influence public opinion using thought-organizers, or "frames," which package complex information by focusing on certain interpretations over others, according to Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.
Frames can be easily recognized by the catchphrases, slogans, cartoons, symbols, or images that communicate a frame's underlying meaning in shorthand.
Nisbet discussed how framing is used in science policy issues such as stem cell research, global climate change and plant biotechnology in a breakfast seminar entitled "Framing Science: Understanding the Battle Over Public Opinion in Policy Debates." The seminar, which filled the AAAS auditorium on 11 October, was sponsored by AAAS Science and Policy and the Washington Science Policy Alliance.
"Matt's work ought to be of interest to everyone in the science policy field," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy at AAAS. "But it is of special interest to those of us who do science policy here at AAAS since we are deeply involved in controversies—including human embryonic stem cell research, climate change, and the teaching of evolution—in which framing has played a major role."
Framing is most effective when it resonates with existing religious, ideological or cultural values, Nisbet explained.
"What's interesting is that most strategic communication is not about changing people's minds; rather it's about activating people, redefining an issue in a way that makes their social identity or their predispositions relevant to a campaign," he said.
For example, in a spring 2001 survey that framed the issue of funding embryonic stem cell research in terms of its potential to cure disease, the majority of the people surveyed said that the NIH should fund stem cell research. In contrast, a second spring 2001 survey that described using tax dollars for the destruction of live embryos generally produced the opposite response.
Science is often framed in a positive way by presenting it as driving social progress or as central to economic competitiveness. On the other hand, science can also be framed as a "Frankenstein's monster out of control," as a Pandora's box of unknown consequences, or as a matter of public accountability, serving either the public or private interest.
Framing can complement other types of science communication, such as public engagement, Nisbet said. He argued that framing is actually more effective than other strategic communication models at reaching the "mass public," citizens who aren't already science enthusiasts or political activists.
Historically, the two dominant approaches in science communication have been the popularization model, personified by Carl Sagan, and the public engagement model, symbolized by the deliberative town meeting.
The popularization model is based on the idea that if people understand more about the facts of science, they will become more sympathetic to scientists' efforts and positions on science-related issues. But, Nisbet said, because the media system has become increasingly fragmented, allowing people to become more selective in the types of information they pay attention to, science popularization efforts are increasingly reaching only those who are already interested in science.
The other approach, public engagement, which aims to produce a dialog between scientists and citizens, also tends to attract only the small number of people who already have strong opinions about scientific issues.
"What a lot of people care about is the so-called 'mass public,'" Nisbet said. "In a lot of political conflict, especially on these increasingly emerging conflicts over science like the stem cell debate and global warming, the battle is over the mass public. Where does the average citizen stand on these issues? How do most Americans, most of the time, make up their minds?"
Framing isn't spin, Nisbet explained. Frames themselves are neutral. For example, the "economic competitiveness" frame can be used to support scientists' efforts on stem cell research or plant biotechnology.
Yet that same frame can also be used to sway public opinion to the other side on scientific issues such as global warming. A Gallup poll presented President Bush's claim that the Kyoto Protocol places too much of an economic burden on the United States while demanding little of developing countries. Then it asked volunteers whether they approved or disapproved of the Bush administration's decision to withdraw support for the agreement. Approximately 40 percent said they approved.
But, when a Pew survey simply told volunteers that the president had decided to withdraw support, with no frame provided, only about 25 percent said they approved.
Whether the topic is scientific or not, framing works because we are "miserly citizens," using frames in combination with our own values to cut down on the "cost" of informing ourselves about current events, according to Nisbet.
"For strategic communication, there is nothing essentially unique or different about science from other political issues," he said.
Nisbet's research focuses on the communication dynamics of science controversies, exploring the interactions between scientists, journalists, policymakers, and various publics. His blog, "Framing Science," can be found here.
To learn more about Matthew Nisbet and his work, click here.
To see his PowerPoint presentation, click here.
18 October 2006