At the Sustainability Symposium last night (which was nominally about water footprints (PDF) and this paper on the international trade in virtual water) we ended up “off topic” and talking about science communication, public outreach, and how policy gets made. Inevitably it seems like these conversations end up coming back to the issues from Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet‘s Speaking Science workshop that SASS sponsored last summer.
There is huge discomfort for scientists in the fact that the way in which information is conveyed impacts how it is interpreted. The idea is at odds with the scientific ideal of objective facts and communication, but nevertheless it is true. A one liter glass plus 500 ml of water equals what? The glass is half empty. The glass is half full. The glass is twice as big as necessary to hold that much water. The same objective facts, different connotations. Different implications. Different frames. And sometimes, the frame ends up being a more important determinant of the listener’s reaction than the information the speaker intended to convey.
If you can think of ten different ways to say the same thing, and you use focus groups to test the reactions that you get for those ten different framings, and you get ten different reactions, how do you choose which conceptual packaging to use? That decision making process inevitably involves a value judgment. You may be conveying empirical facts, and you may think that the appropriate response to those facts is obvious, but the empirical fact that many responses to the same information are possible indicates that the appropriate response is not obvious. You have to choose which response you are trying to get, and use the corresponding framing device. This is not lying or propagandizing, but it is making a value judgment.
Maybe you had hoped you wouldn’t have to make such subjective decisions as a scientist? Well, tough titties, you do. Even if you refuse to admit it, there is a value judgment embedded in the way you choose to communicate your facts and findings. That value judgment is not a function of your response to the information, it is a function of your audience’s response. The choice you have is not whether to have a subjective effect on the communication, it is whether do so consciously and thus increase the probability that your message is received as you hoped it would be, or unconsciously, allowing your message to be muddled by whatever response you happen to accidentally inspire.
This dynamic is not a side effect of a public that does not understand science (though that may also be true), it’s just the way humans work. Take a scientifically literate sub-public, or even a room full of experts, and their perception of your information will still be influenced by how you convey it, so choose your framing well.