As the summer is drawing to a close, I felt inclined to discuss the conclusions I reached with my Monroe project, reflect on several unanswered questions, and propose future directions for my research.
A significant part of my project was investigating how writers throughout the history of the environmental movement have communicated the details of the issues they investigate to a non-scientific readership. I began with the hypothesis that books on environmental issues would contain a certain degree of scientific information, and that this information would be relayed to a public audience in various ways. By the time I began to analyze the books I read for the project, my investigation of framing as a communications device had convinced me that the actual scientific content of a book, provided it is truthful and does not open up the author to attacks on a factual basis, is not as important as the methods used to transmit that content.
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:
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.