I started work on my Monroe project three days after arriving home in rainy Binghamton, but I suppose I’ve been waiting to make my first blog post until I felt I had significant “results.” (I’m so used to scientific research that under other circumstances, this post would be a graph.) Of course, I knew at the start that my research was going to be largely qualitative.
Although I posted an abstract earlier this spring, I thought I’d re-summarize my project. I was inspired by my freshman seminar course, “Beyond Petroleum as Fuel,” to investigate the role of science communication in shaping public understanding of environmental issues. Obviously, this is an investigation into an topic fraught with bias. Much of the information we, as ordinary citizens, hear about environmental topics like climate change, resource depletion, and energy issues is delivered through a confusing tunnel of media and politics. Although every public issue is bound to be contorted by politics, it’s doubly concerning when the issue at hand has a strong basis in scientific research. Science is a beacon of truth, right? Even if we don’t all come to the same conclusions about climate change or alternative energy, we should at least be able to create a dialogue in which both sides of the argument are informed by the same data and information, right?
In my project, I wanted to investigate the complex relationship that communication of scientific information has had -and has -with public perception of environmental issues. I’ve been working from a book list that incorporates major pieces of writing from the history of the environmental movement, as well as popular science books. I’ve read several books so far, and I am working steadily through a list that will most definitely keep growing beyond the summer. From the reading portion of my project, I’ve begun to understand why I have so much trouble describing my thesis to others; it can be approached from two related but opposite directions. Major works of environmental writing are often infused with scientific data (Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is probably the most prominent example); on the other hand, popular science books (Carl Sagan, anyone?) which are not explicitly environmental still carry strong themes regarding humankind’s small place in the universe, and a tone of reverence for the natural world from which we derive knowledge as well as beauty. This reverence leads easily enough to an ethic of conservation and respect for the planet we live on. There is a strong mutual relationship between scientific study and acknowledgment of our impact on the world around us.
One of the most influential papers I have read so far – “What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions” – was published in the American Journal of Botany in 2009. In the paper, authors Nisbet and Schufele discuss the idea of “framing.” Frames are “interpretative storylines that communicate what is at stake in a societal debate and why the issue matters” (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989, cited in Nisbet and Schufele). My views of science were immediately challenged when I read this sentence; what do “interpretive storylines” have to do with a subject area that is supposed to be a paragon of truth and objectivity? I am beginning to realize that my thesis, though it relies on science as a source of objective information that can guide public policy and decision making, removes science from the realm of objectivity and places it in more nebulous realms dictated by human emotion and bias. The average citizen, endowed with decision-making power, does not possess the time or educational background to review and understand the relevant literature concerning current environmental topics. Our information has to come from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is either the media, politicians, or scientists themselves, stepping out of the laboratory to become writers, advisers and advocates. Like it or not, “frames” are here to stay.
The authors discuss the “frame contest” that occurs as certain frames gain primacy if they are more compatible with the dominant culture of a time, and list some major frames that occur in science-related policy debates: “Social Progress,” “Economic development/competitiveness,” “Morality/ethics,” “Scientific/technical uncertainty,” “Pandora’s box/Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science,” “Public accountability/governance,” “Middle way/alternative path,” “Conflict/strategy.” For a more detailed description of each of these frames, feel free to access the paper, cited at the end of this post. The writer in me is excited at the possibilities for analysis presented by these frames, as much as the scientist in me is made uncomfortable by their existence.
As I move forward, I will continue to read more and to write more, with increased cognizance of the use of specific frames in the books I read and in my own writing. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab, where things really are black and white…at least in my SEM images.
For more information, access: Nisbet, M. C. & Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 000-000.