Several weeks ago, Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet published a perspective piece in Science on “Framing Science“, that is, on communicating science effectively to non-scientific audiences (see also their Outlook piece in the Washington Post). They recognized that many issues of central concern to society — including hot-button political issues like evolution, stem cell research, and climate change — have important scientific elements and that scientists are not explaining the science behind them very well to the general public whose votes guide fundamental policy related to these issues. Mooney and Nisbet’s essential point was:
“Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively ‘frame’ information to make it relevant to different audiences . . . Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done ”
This message generated a vigorous discussion that is still going on. It’s been brought home to me by Jarrett Byrnes’ post at “I’m a chordata, urochordata” (I’m afraid you’ll have to ask him to explain the name of the blog) in which he raises some important points about how the message of our paper on ocean biodiversity was lost in the media coverage and controversy about the projected collapse of seafood by 2048. Regarding the original paper by Worm et al, Jarrett observes:
“The concordance of a wide variety of experiments and observation is pretty striking. You’d think that if such an article were to be discussed at large in the media and by scientists in the literature, there could be some interesting debate about the meaning of richness measures, what the concordance between experimental and pattern results mean . . ., what experiments need to be done next, and whether diversity should really be taken into account with respect to management.
WRONG! What is being discussed is . . . a number that is based on an extrapolation of a statistical model that is towards the end of the paper in a parenthetical. It’s that parenthetical, that 2048 date . . . The graph itself doesn’t even have it plotted as a point. . . . And it’s not a main point of the paper, it a motivation for the paper, and a reason to give weight to it’s conclusions. . . . You’d think scientists would realize this. Instead, yesterday’s issue of Science brought a rain of technical comments and letters with counter responses all about the 2048 number and how it was calculated. There were a few oblique references to the biodiversity thing, a little discussion about reserves, but, really, it’s all about that one projection.”
It is indeed striking that this single number dominated virtually all discussion of the paper. But it probably shouldn’t be surprising. First of all, to be fair, we did lead with the 2048 projection (rounded to 2050) in the press release and I believe that Science led with this in their publicity as well. Naturally, this is what journalists seized on, and what hit the presses. Second, and more importantly, the hypothesized collapse of fisheries is obviously a highly charged issue with economies and livelihoods of real people at stake, not to mention careers of scientists and managers. In other words, it’s news. So it stands to reason that this became the focus of media attention. By comparison, the “functional importance of biodiversity” is a decidedly squishy concept — even to many academic ecologists. I have been told by more than one journalist (to my amazement, initially) that even the term “biodiversity”, despite the heroic work of EO Wilson and others over the last few decades, is considered opaque jargon by many smart, well-read journalists, not to mention the general public. In fact, the whole four-year multi-investigator effort at rigorously linking marine biodiversity and ecosystem services, which led to the Science paper, was motivated by the question of a journalist who stood up at a meeting on the future of marine biodiversity and said, “so what?”
So, despite being parenthetical to our main research findings, we recognized that the 2048 number was a point that the general public would sit up and listen to. Clearly, they did. The challenge then became steering the public discussion back to the main point of the paper. And this was actually successful in some cases.
Some might argue that using such a “hook” to attract public attention is a deal with the devil. I disagree, for this particular case (although the approach could certainly be abused). The 2048 date came from projection of a very well-supported statistical trend; had we not had the severe space restrictions of Science we might have been able to discuss the caveats more. But had we not made that projection in the first place, chances are the paper would have been read only by the usual academics, there would have been little discussion of it in the public realm, and the main message about the importance of biodiversity (overshadowed as it was by the seafood collapse story) would not have got even the attention that it did. So I think, on balance, the outcome has been positive.
Science is increasingly critical to the future of humankind and the world. Therefore, scientific issues will inevitably take center stage in many important public debates. Who will interpret these complex issues for the general public and their elected representatives? We could always leave it to the Competitive Enterprise Institute or former Congressman Richard Pombo or the pesticide industry, all of whom are more than eager to “interpret” science for the American public. Or, alternatively, we — the scientists, the experts — can learn how to talk to regular people and do it ourselves. It’s not easy, and you can be guaranteed that you will be misinterpreted sometimes. But the alternatives may be worse.
[The image of the frame comes from Mooney and Nisbet’s Science article and is originally from Photos.com]