Beyond the deficit model, how science communication puts nature in the frame

A science communication paper shows that framing matters when people are asked about climate change fixes. The public has a natural preference for nature. However when people don't know what is being discussed, do they really prefer nature, or a natural appearance?
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Every so often I read a paper that could be titled: “An experiment to discover the obvious”, where a team of scientists go to great effort to discover something that everyone more or less knew anyway. Sometimes the papers are a waste of time and paper, but often they aren’t. One reason is that the paper will take a vague idea that everyone knows and quantify it, so that people actually do know rather than going on anecdata. Another way these papers can help isn’t just from the results, but also in how they discuss the problem. So if you read Like artificial trees? The effect of framing by natural analogy on public perceptions of geoengineering by Adam Corner and Nick Pidgeon, it’s no surprise that people like natural things, but how they get to that conclusion, and the nuances of it are a good read.

Nature versus Industry
Nature versus Industry. Photo Gerry Thomasen / Flickr.

It won’t take a lot of imagination to see how the paper has direct relevance to communicating about botany either.

Corner and Pigeon open by talking about the development of geoengineering, including the problems of using that term, and the public perception of it. They then talk about communication and in particular the framing model, which tends to polarise scientists when they hear about it. Part of the reason is that most scientists approach science communication through the deficit model. So what is the difference between the two approaches.

The deficit model assumes that the key problem in science communication is lack of knowledge, a deficit that needs to be fixed. If only the public understood the science, they’d come to the same conclusions. The framing model says that people think about scientific problems in the context or frame of the scientific knowledge they have. For framing the key problem in scientific communication isn’t lack of knowledge, but rather putting the scientific problem into a useful context for people to discuss. If you think that framing sounds like nonsense, you’re not alone because some advocates of framing are, ironically, poor communicators.

To see why framing seems such a bad idea, you need to think about the context how scientists approach it. Often they’re academics, so they’re aware they didn’t know stuff and, if they’re teaching, they’ll be keenly aware of how much stuff their students don’t know. As people learn more they tend to approach common ground with other scientists. They don’t agree with everything, but areas of disagreement tend to get more specialised. In the frame of ‘academic science’, the deficit model works. Further, when these scientists take part in open days or public events, then find an audience keen to learn more about what they don’t know, so it’s common that scientists’ personal experience with the deficit model is that it works. When framing advocates say that context, not knowledge is key, what often gets heard is the slightly different message “everyone has enough scientific knowledge.” it’s no wonder framing is a hard sell.

However looking at open days, for every eager visitor that comes to a department for knowledge, hardly anyone else will. It’s not that people know enough, it’s just that after a hard week it takes a special kind of freak to sit down and try learning all the science they need to know about when they could put their feet up for a couple of hours and watch Die Hard With A Vest On. There is a huge number of people who don’t feel they have the time to go into every detail, but they still have the vote. Will their vote depend on the context of a proposal?

The Corner and Pigeon paper puts forward a proposal for geoengineering with one change. In one presentation the technology was presented using analogies to nature, and in the other the same activity was described as an industrial process. For example:

One technology that we are working on acts like an artificial tree by breathing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then storing it underground.

One technology that we are working on involves a chemical process and large industrial machinery to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then store it underground.

The results found a small but significant increase in support when fewer than a dozen words were changed in a 200 word block of text.

While the effect is small, the paper is helpful. For a start it puts framing in a context that makes sense to scientists. Instead of being told framing works, they show framing works, even if just a little in their experiment. Also, they point out this is a measurable change over one event, and ask if further events have more of an effect when a technofix is repeatedly framed as natural. Are the shifts in opinion greater?

Another feature of the paper that I’ve not touched on is that it tackles the idea of publics well. We often talk about the public as though it’s one homogenous mass. Corner and Pigeon use analysis to examine people by a variety of factors like their views on climate change and age.

Something else that’s missing from the paper is the idea that the geoengineering methods proposed are the right answer. Instead it’s the process and effects of communication that are studied to see what they are. It’s not scored against how many people get the right answer. This highlights a final difference between deficit and framing approaches. In the deficit model knowledge flows in one direction. In a framing model knowledge can flow in both directions, in this case being an understanding of what bothers people about a scientific process.

It doesn’t mean the deficit model is always wrong. We can improve our situation by learning about things, but that’s not the solution by itself. An effective public engagement with science will need both content and context.

Adam Corner, Nick Pidgeon, 2014, ‘Like artificial trees? The effect of framing by natural analogy on public perceptions of geoengineering’, Climatic Change, vol. 130, no. 3, pp. 425-438 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1148-6


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