Framing Science

How much difference does a choice in framing make? This might not seem like that important of a question, but when you pose it to journalists, politicians, or even scientists, the answer becomes quite valuable.

frame1For example, there’s often a major difference between how Fox News covers a story and how the rest of the world chooses to portray events. Or when Barak Obama talks about the next round of debt ceiling wars, does he choose to talk about how Republicans refuse to cooperate on the most mundane things like paying the nation’s bills or does he instead focus on how irresponsible it is to play chicken with the nation’s credit rating?

Okay, so those two framing tactics are pretty much the same. But you get my drift, right?

The same issue easily finds a home in scientific literature. New discoveries are presented to the public on a daily basis, and it’s to a scientist’s advantage to get the public interested in their work. Popular support can often lead to more grants for the field. Getting the information out there can also lead to collaborations or partnerships with industry.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin too. If researchers today just found out about nuclear fission for the first time, how would they talk about? Would they focus on the potential for limitless clean energy, or the dangers of producing nuclear fuel and the potential to weaponize the byproducts?

Nothing to see here

Nothing to see here

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently took a look at this question in more depth. The burgeoning field of research they chose to focus on was nanoparticles. Sure, a lot of folks might have heard the word from time to time, but for most people it means just about as much as metallofullerenes.

Yes, that’s a thing.

The scientists brought in volunteers and gave each of them one of three definitions. One highlighted the promise for real-world applications of nanoparticles, the second talked about the risks and benefits of the technology, and the third was composed of a mix of the first two. The newly informed folks were then asked to rate their support of nanoparticles and how likely they would be to seek out more information about them.

Yup. There's nanoparticles in sunscreen. Run for your lives!

Yup. There’s nanoparticles in sunscreen. Run for your lives!

The results showed that the difference in framing tactics made a difference in how people reacted to the technology. If they learned about all the great things that nanoparticles might bring us – destroying cancer, reprogramming DNA, cleaning up the environment, sunscreen, etc. – they were very much in support of furthering research. However, they weren’t so interested in learning more about it.

On the other hand, if they were told about the potential benefits and risks – especially the risks – people had less support for the technology but yet wanted to learn more about it.

People could jump to some conclusions at this point. One is that getting the public both interested in a technology and in support of it is a careful seesaw battle. Telling them too much about the underlying potential pitfalls might lose their support, but telling them too little about it might make them not care.

After all, why should they care about anything that can’t hurt them?

That brings up an interesting point. These results did not hold true for anyone with a college degree in the sciences. Why might that be? Perhaps it’s because those folks were already interested in science and how the world works, and they want to know more about everything in the first place.frame4

So maybe the point here isn’t weighing how you tell the public about your science, it’s about getting them interested in science in general. Perhaps we should be getting people to look around them in awe and wonder and start questioning how the world works. No, forget it, they’re too busy wondering why Sean Lowe chose Catherine Giudici instead of Lindsay Yenter in the 17th season of The Bachelor.

That’s right. There’s been 17 goddamn seasons of The Bachelor.

We’re hopeless.

The study, “What’s in a name? How we define nanotech shapes public reactions,” was published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research by Ashley Anderson, Jiyoun Kim, Dietram Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, and Michael Xenos.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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