Got Framing? Why Scientists Must Pay Attention to Communication Science, and Not Just as an Afterthought

Got Framing? Why Scientists Must Pay Attention to Communication Science, and Not Just as an Afterthought
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There was the Tweet, from Andy Revkin: “Scientists Call For Stronger Global Governance To Address Climate Change.” Revkin linked to a Forbes story, that, in turn, linked to a new paper in Science by the “Earth System Governance Project,” described as “the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change.”

So why, then, don’t these scientists seem to know much about the social science when it comes to communication?

If you are a U.S. conservative, then “global governance” is automatic fighting words. Conservatives have individualistic values, as per Dan Kahan; they interpret the moral foundation of “liberty/oppression”—as per Jonathan Haidt–as a cry to resist power grabs by big government, and even more, global government.

This is deep seated, emotional, and powerful. And scientists have just brazenly triggered it by talking about “global governance.”  

Look: I’m no purist about communication. I know it is partly theory, and partly an art form. It requires creativity and humor as much as it requires listening to what science has to say about what persuades people (and what doesn’t).

But there are a few obvious tripwires that by now, people really should be aware of. And triggering the Tea Party’s “don’t tread on me” reflex surely ought to be one of them.

The “Earth System Governance Project” is, admittedly, a global group of scholars, so perhaps some of them are not attuned to the nature of politics in the U.S. But other members are indeed American. And all of them are working in a highly contested and politicized area, something that is rather hard to miss even in the ivory tower.

So if the problematic nature of their message did not occur to them, or to their editors and peer reviewers at Science, then this means the quest to improve science communication–based on science–still has a very long way to go.

To advance it, let me lay out one simple principle for contemplation: Don’t trust your instincts in communication. They are very probably wrong.

In general, scientists, liberals, and university-based people share a set of assumptions. To be brief, these are the Enlightenment assumptions….lay the facts out there, they are accepted, the world gets better, we change and improve.

But these assumptions are not universal, and in assuming they are, we completely hobble our communications.

Starting from their liberal Enlightenment framework, members of the “Earth System Governance Project” naturally assume since climate change is real, and since global institutions have failed to address it, we need better working global institutions. The steps from problem to solution are, for them, perfectly obvious.

And that’s precisely the problem.

Here’s a simple trick that might help scientists in such a situation: Try writing the Fox News headline for your paper. In the present case, I think that says it all.

Look, I want better global governance as much as the next liberal—but I know that the to express oneself in this way is to trigger conservative ire. And that goes doubly or triply if you’re a scientist and you want to be seen as a nonpartisan expert who is fair and even-handed. The call for global governance will appear inherently political to conservatives; heck, I am willing to bet that in a controlled experiment, such a framing will also drive them to deny global warming even more strongly than they do normally.

So what should scientists do? First and most obviously, read the research. And doing so leads to the conclusion that you can’t just think about the science, or about the policy—you must also think about the cultural meaning and the system of morality you are conveying. 

Second–because I know this objection is coming–this doesn’t mean that you can’t propose the ideas or solutions that you think are the correct ones. But it does mean you probably ought to do so in a context that also credits some solutions that we know appeal to conservatives, like nuclear power and various forms of geoengineering. (See Dan Kahan’s take here.)

And yes, I know very well that that may feel uncomfortable. But I promise you this: It’s no less uncomfortable than the “global governance” framing feels to conservatives.

Finally, three: Everybody’s free to take this advice and leave it. But don’t be surprised if your communications backfire, if you get labeled political, or if someone uses you to support the idea that there really is a scientific conspiracy to sell us global warming when the real goal is socialist global government. (Yup, it has already happened.) You’ve been warned.

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