Science Framed at Caltech

Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet came to Caltech and gave SASS talk on Monday night, and ran a science media messaging workshop entitled Speaking Science Bootcamp all day Tuesday. It was great. Anybody who’s getting a PhD in science should go through at least that much communication training, and if they’re in an area that has policy implications, or they have any interest whatsoever in doing outreach or communication of science, they should have a week long course on the same material.

The amount of resistance to the idea of “framing” that was apparent in the audience after the talk on Monday was surprising. People think it’s political spin, marketing, propaganda, PR, etc. And that’s certainly where the techniques of framing have been most widely and successfully applied (e.g. Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s 14 Words Never to Use). The connotations are bad, but the techniques themselves are, I think, neutral. Ultimately, framing is about conveying as much information as possible in limited space and time, to an audience that has finite attention. If you have only one paragraph, or 30 seconds, to get your message across to someone with no background in science, you need to choose your words carefully, and know exactly what it is you’re trying to communicate.

This is very very different from normal scientific communication. If you’re writing or speaking for another scientist who’s interested in your work, you often assume that your audience has virtually infinite attention. Certainly a lot of the papers I’ve read seem to assume that, and even then I don’t think it’s a good practice. Scientists also have limited attention (even if they don’t want to admit it). If your audience has infinite attention, and background in what you’re talking about, you can give them all kinds of details and let them draw their own conclusions. This is not what we have when talking to policymakers or the public. We are not going to get all the subtleties and details across to most people, most of the time, and we need to stop trying, lest we continue to fail to get across the big picture, and the implications of science effectively.

I would love to see Caltech and MIT, and all the other science focused institutions realize that it is in their long term interest to be turning out scientists and engineers that can get science across to people via the media, and in direct interactions with the public. It’s not a distraction, it’s part of our core mission. Holding annual workshops like the Speaking Science Bootcamp (but longer), hosting visiting professors in communications, or having their media relations staff work with students are all options. Larger universities with top notch science and engineering schools like Berkeley and Stanford should be partnering their communications departments with their science and engineering schools to offer courses which are specifically tailored to the science and engineering students – in particular graduate students – and requiring that anyone in an advanced degree program take these courses early on in their graduate career, so that if they end up leaving and going into journalism or policy or (heaven forbid!) teaching, instead of academia, they still know how to message science issues.

Like it or not, framing works, and in some contexts, we don’t have the luxury of communicating poorly any more. I have to hope that telling the truth using techniques that were developed largely to enable effective lying will make the truth even more convincing than the lies.

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