In my last post, I introduced the concept of frames and expressed a mixture of interest as a writer and discomfort as a scientist with “framing” our closest approximation to the objective truth in a way that is relevant to the interests of audiences. It seemed vaguely manipulative, but fairly necessary and unavoidable.
An event in my own research life a few weeks ago demonstrated that frames are necessary not just in science communication to a popular audience, but within the science community as well. In proposing a new direction for his research, a colleague of mine handed a paper he had found to our professor, who looked it over before expressing disbelief that the paper had been published. The introduction of the paper provided little information beyond the chemical name of the compound being studied. Essentially, there was no frame for the research. The introduction failed to communicate the societal importance of the topic, and so the graphs and figures that followed were rendered much less meaningful. In order for scientists to secure financial support and sustained interest in their research, they must employ frames in papers, presentations and grant proposals.
My next question is, can science be protected from its frames? Even if the use of science is not objective, can the research itself be kept in some sort of inner chamber, free from politicization and manipulation by interest groups who aim to improve their credibility by laying claim to “science?” Nisbet & Scheufele argue that the view of policy debates as “simply [matters] of “sound science” reduces scientific knowledge to just another
resource that interest groups can draw upon in political battles, threatening the perceived integrity of science” (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009). Here, we must draw a distinction between allowing scientific research to provide background information for policy debates, and portraying it as the direct cause of policy decisions. The former is innocuous; the second is fraught with the possibility of misrepresentation of data, and the consequent public loss of faith in science as an objective discipline. Jonathan H. Adler discusses this issue in “Devaluing Science,” a review of the book The Honest Broker by political scientist Roger A. Pielke. Adler summarizes that “today’s politicization of science is due in part, Pielke argues, to the “scientization” of public policy—attempts to resolve policy disputes through technical expertise rather than politics” (Adler, 2007).
So, if policies that ignore scientific knowledge are limited at best, and policies that rely too exclusively on “science” are harmful to the integrity of the discipline, where does that leave us?
This is, as the title suggests, an issue that involves framing. In a blog post, Nisbet introduces the idea that two premises arise for every issue involving scientific research. The first premise is guided strictly by what the science says. As Nisbet writes, the first premise, the scientific research and conclusions drawn from it, “does not offer an explicit normative framework that might guide decision-making.” In politics, and in communication, this first premise should not be tampered with. There is ample room for opinion and subjectivity in the establishment of the second premise, which establishes “a set of moral and normative frameworks that can stir policymakers and the public to action” (Nisbet, 2009). The second premise is where frames come into play. It provides a way to interpret the conclusions of scientific research in a socially relevant way. Ideally, this should be done with acknowledgment of and separation from the first premise.
As an illustrative example, I’ll look at the issue of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, an unconventional method for extracting natural gas from rock formations unsuitable for typical vertical drilling by injecting water and chemicals underground, breaking up rock to release natural gas. High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new technological advancement. There are a number of points in the extraction process where things can go wrong, and historical examples of these mistakes. Such mistakes have the potential to adversely impact the quality of ecosystems and communities in which they occur. Assessing these impacts will require further study.
Such a description, however objective, ignores many complex realities of the situation that must be taken into consideration before decisions are made. While the facts of the situation remain intact, value judgments are applied through the establishment of the second premise, which then guides actions. “Second premises” could include:
1) The short-term economic benefits outweigh the risks, which are present in any industry and overhyped by opponents. We shouldn’t deny our community jobs and tax revenue in these tough economic times.
2) Although drilling would be a financial boon to our area, it would be irresponsible to begin before more studies are done to determine the potential health and environmental effects of the process. Look at Pennsylvania. Let’s be smarter.
3) High-volume hydraulic fracturing should be banned in New York State. Not only are the ramifications of the process largely unexplored, it is foolhardy to place our hopes for a recovered economy on the shoulders of a nonrenewable resource. Allowing fracking will divert our attention from creating jobs in sustainable energy technology development.
Unfortunately, the “first premise” is not always left intact. Clever wordplay might convince those looking into the issue that the “fracking” we have been debating is an old technology (It’s not; while hydraulic fracturing was pioneered by Halliburton in 1947, the technology in question today uses horizontal drill bits and much higher volumes of water and chemicals, and was developed in the late 1990s) (Marcellus Accountability Project-Tompkins, 2011). It might bring readers to the conclusion that gas reserves in the Marcellus could serve m% of our energy needs for n years, reducing our dependence on foreign oil (Any m or n you encounter is a variable highly dependent on the number of wells and the intensity of drilling. Without specifying parameters, claims about the energy available can be easily misinterpreted.) As Nisbet says in his post, “the first premise of scientific certainty remains selectively interpreted by the public based on their values and partisan identity.” It is even easier to selectively interpret the “truth” when multiple versions are available.
It is my opinion that emphasizing the second premise is crucial in finding a balance between protecting scientific integrity and allowing for the interpretation of science. We should avoid the claim that certain conclusions or decisions are “based on sound science,” which paints opposing viewpoints as being based on “unsound science.” Not only does this compromise public trust of scientists, it also drags politics into the realm of research.
In 1998, Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes published a paper on global temperatures over the last 600 years, later extended to 1000 years. The paper included the now-famous “hockey-stick graph” which showed global temperatures rising steeply during the 20th century, after centuries of remaining relatively flat (Pearce, 2010). The graph was included in the International Panel on Climate Change’s Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers in 2001. Though the graph’s validity was still shrouded in uncertainty, it became an iconic public image of global warming, and has become “a symbol of the conflict between mainstream climate scientists and their critics” (Pearce, 2010). Controversy erupted over the graph, extending from the scientific sphere into the political world. The conflict over climate data has been long and convoluted, with questionable actions on both sides of the fence. To make a long story short, further studies have give validity to the general findings of the hockey-stick graph: that Earth is experiencing an unprecedented warming trend caused by human activity. Yet, significant damage has been caused by the conflict (sometimes referred to as “climategate”) (Pearce, 2010). A 2010 study reviewed 1372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data, and concluded that “97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (Anderegg et al, 2010) Yet, an annual survey by Yale and George Mason Universities showed only 64 percent of American adults believe the planet is warming. When asked to assume warming is happening and attribute it to a cause, only 47% responded that humans were the major contributing factor (Kaufman, 2011).
Why the divide? This question would take much longer than a summer to answer. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the political entrenchment of climate change science has something to do with the pervasive public confusion regarding its conclusions. Had the scientific findings been more accurately portrayed as uncertain and requiring further validation, and had political recommendations been more explicitly portrayed as stemming from ethical interpretations of science than from science itself, would the situation be different?
As I said, these questions would take far longer than a summer to answer, and might necessitate a trip back in time. But, the global warming example further demonstrates the importance of delineating between the first and second premises before moving technical information into the public sphere. Global warming science has suffered the worst consequences of failing to do so, sustaining a nastily bruised reputation from its fall into political controversy.
Adler, J.A. (2007). Devaluing Science. The New Atlantis, 17, 111-118. Retrieved from <http://www.thenewatlantis.com/>
Anderegg, W.R.L., Prall, J.W., Harold, J., and Schneider, S.H. (2010, April 9). Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from <http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.full.pdf+html>
Kaufman, L. (2009, June 9). Americans still split on global warming, poll shows. [Web log post]. The New York Times, Green: A blog about energy and the environment. Retrieved from <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/americans-still-split-on-global-warming-poll-shows/>
Marcellus Accountability Project–Tompkins (2011). How will High-Volume (Slick-water) Hydraulic Fracturingof the Marcellus (or Utica) Shale Differ from Traditional Hydraulic Fracturing? Retrieved from <www.TCgasmap.org>
Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating the Second Premise: Whether Obama or Bush, Values Drive Science Policy Decisions. Posted on Mar. 10 at Framing Science: What’s Next in Public Engagement? [Web log post.] Science Blogs. Retrieved from <http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2009/03/communicating_the_second_premi.php>
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.
Pearce, F. (2010). Climate wars: Guardian special investigation. guardian.co.uk. Retrieved from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment>