Over at The Observatory, the science blog for the Columbia Journalism Review, there’s an interesting exchange between science communications researchers and a long-standing Public Information Officer at Ohio State. It started with a post from an Observatory staffer on a Harper’s column alleging that science was dehumanizing. He used the article as a springboard to talk about scientists who are also advocates, and the challenges of communicating scientific research in a way that might affect action.
From there Earle Holland weighed in with a piece suggesting that efforts to have scientists communicate their research via framing – finding a context for their work that would resonate with the public – amount to advocacy and would harm their image. He conflates communication with advocacy, and considers framing little more than spin. He also falls back to the traditional conception of scientists as people interested primarily, if not only, in the research and not in its implications. It reads to me very much as a traditionalist defense of science and society relations – hands off.
Where the exchange gets involved, and ultimately frustrating, is in the next post, where science communication researchers Matt Nisbet (of Framing Science), Dominique Brossard, and Dietram Scheufele respond to what they consider a misrepresentation of their work by Holland, and a further explanation and defense of their perspective (one which I share, if I haven’t been clear about it by now). From this last post:
“Research from the social sciences on framing offers a theoretical context and method for structuring communication around dimensions of an issue that might increase public attention, trust, and understanding. Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.”
While this can be used in the context of advocating a particular policy choice, it does not have to be. Reporting or journalism, by its nature, is trying to say that the stories it produces have value to their audience. In the comments to the last post, Holland makes some well written points about how he cannot see framing a science story in a way that doesn’t smack of advocacy. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in misunderstanding the point, and Nisbet and his colleagues have yet to break through that logjam. A story can answer for the reader “Why should I care?” without telling that reader what they should do about it. That getting this point across has been a futile exercise with some really emphasizes the obstinate frustration I attach to science communication and how its failures lead to many of the problems in science policy of getting sufficient attention from policymakers.