What we know for Whom we know


Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Communicating the Value and Values of Science” is an important reminder of how experts must do a better job of sharing knowledge with the general public. It’s crucial that what scientists know and the scientific process isn’t overwhelmed by inaccurate information from the media or even rumor. However, for hard science, delivering the facts and framing them accurately can be an easier task, especially when the public is experiencing a heightened sense of fear and are searching for concrete tips and strategies on what to do. But on social issues, such as immigration, it may be more difficult translating the “correct” facts without triggering political and identity-protective enclaves.

Jamieson uses the example of Zika on how science can play a role in effectively telling people what’s fact and what’s not. Her belief is that there are correct methods of framing the facts without it getting misconstrued. For example, she explained how the public doesn’t understand that science is an iterative process. Scientists are still trying to find the causal links between Zika and microcephaly. But nuance is left out of the discussion and the numbers suspected and confirmed cases are lumped together, and interpreted by the media and the public as a “crisis.” Add the imagery the media uses, such as distraught parents and babies with misshapen heads, and people become increasingly misinformed. Or in the case of global warming, where a 2013 report on Artic sea ice can be exploited by science deniers such as Limbaugh, and people are led to believe that global warming is a conspiracy. Again, people don’t understand that there remains an overall decrease in Arctic sea ice through the decades and it’s been trending downwards.

Ultimately, Jamieson feels that science can and should temper ignorance among the public by disseminating key information while the public is engaged, capitalizing on the attention-focusing influence of fear while supplying useful information on how to take action, minimizing misinformation in the media and increasing reporting on preventative measures, and finally, teaching about science. A major strategy in sharing knowledge is correctly defining scientific terms. A person who doesn’t know much about Zika will gain nothing from its current name, or someone who associates global warming with an increase in temperature is more likely to say, “Wow, I guess global warming is a hoax since we had snowfall this year.” Incorporating language that reflects the nuance of what’s happening is crucial. So, instead of global warming, maybe it’s best to call it “climate change” and instead of Zika, scientists should name it “mosquito borne” virus, and use the analogy of Yellow Fever to anchor the public in how best to view this current situation.

Jamieson’s argument can be tied to framing. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, John R. Zaller explains how a question is phrased determines the answer. Opinions aren’t stable ideas in a person’s head. Basically, they are being constructed in the moment. Zaller writes “although a significant simplification of what must occur in reality, has sufficient internal complexity to generate interestingly different expectations in different circumstances […]” (180). On questions about the Cold War, providing context can elicit a different response than when not doing so. Jamieson herself states science must avoid triggering controversy and causing people find shelter in their partisan cocoons by picking the ideal phrase, word, or metaphor.

Jamieson is correct in exploring the power of framing, and referring to how fear can be harnessed by scientists as a way to provide strategies and facts to the public. Also, her beliefs that sound science communicated thoroughly increases the likelihood of good public policy and that the democratic process doesn’t function with a confused public are valid as well. In Page and Shapiro’s “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy,” although they had questions on the direct link in which public opinion affected policy (or the other way around), they felt there was a connection nonetheless, especially in terms of Nixon normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China under Mao. But, as political science has shown, social science is typically a harder nut to crack. Compared to hard science, which can rise above partisan conflict by portraying what it knows as objective reality i.e. gravity, social science and theory is less able to do so.

Institutionalized racism and police brutality is a reality for people of color. Statistics on discriminatory policies are being shared by the media. According to the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department, African Americans, although 67% of the area’s population, “accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops,” and that they were “2.07 times more likely to be searched during a vehicular stop but are 26% less likely to have contraband found on them during a search” (98-99). Researchers at Northwestern found “abuse of and dependence on cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines, and opioids is less common among African Americans than among non-Hispanic whites.”[1] Despite the facts and growing literature on race discrimination, it took social movements such as Black Lives Matter to force politicians into caring. In fact, there are still many Americans who not only dispute the notion that prejudice exists, but that if it does, that white Americans bear the brunt. “Half of white Americans — including 60 percent of the white working class,” reported by The Washington Post, “told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”[2] The War on Drugs has preyed on the fears of everyday people and consequently, against the evidence, targeted communities of color. In the 1980s, due to “panic,” Congress responded by supporting legislation penalizing crack users with a minimum sentence of five years for “just five grams of the drug.” Crack, often associated with black residents in the inner-city, had been racialized. It would take a person to have five hundred grams of cocaine, a drug once considered fashionable within boardrooms and high-end parties, to receive a similar punishment.[3]

As Jamieson said, confusion can lead to bad policy. In Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, where she details how the American criminal justice system has filled its prisons with black faces, explains “Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for ‘get tough on crime’ and antiwelfare measures” (54). In states like Illinois, 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense is African American (189). Similarly, Republican politicians are sowing fear and distrust among the public concerning Syrian refugees and Islam. Muslim-Americans express consistently positive views about the U.S. In a poll done by the Pew Research Center in 2011, one of their conclusions was “opposition to violence is broadly shared by all segments of the Muslim American population, and there is no correlation between support for suicide bombing and measures of religiosity such as strong religious beliefs or mosque attendance.” As if in a separate universe, right-wing pundits and politicos continue to echo conspiratorial claims that refugees are sleeper agents and that Muslims are unable to assimilate. In a Bloomberg Politics poll after the Paris attacks, “fifty-three percent of U.S. adults in the survey, conducted in the days immediately following the attacks, say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists, while 11 percent said they would favor a limited program to accept only Syrian Christians […].”

Yes, there are people who still don’t believe in evolution. Yes, there are even those who won’t accept blood transfusions because it conflicts with their faith. But, the ways in which hard science can be depoliticized are different than in social science. This is not to say Jamieson is naïve. Jamieson’s approach simply needs to be specified and more steps added when translating social theory to the public. For instance, when trying to craft an ideal message, it should be noted that racial/ethnic groups respond differently. In the case of the Syrian refugees, the solution could be to appeal to an individual’s sense of religious morality, based on whether that person is black or white. “The African-American understanding of religion differs significantly from the White understanding, because it has been shaped in the context of the Black experience,” Eric L. McDaniel writes in African-American Political Psychology (135). Although religion is important to black Americans, especially the black Church, many interpret their faith differently than white Americans do. In a study done by McDaniel, the effect of orthodoxy is not as important or “systemic” for blacks as it is for whites. Race, for black Americans, mutes levels of religiosity (144).

Another lesson to take from Jamieson is the importance of the expert and valued institutions (or as she describes “custodians of knowledge”). Organizations like NASA, which are appreciated by conservative and liberal alike, are better vehicles in providing scientific knowledge. In social science, we could go one step further. Similar to specific messaging to target different groups, social scientists may need to also incorporate that belief into who they put forward as their representative. For instance, could it be more useful to have an African American social scientist deliver a message to a majority African American public? Would it make the knowledge they have more easily accepted? Further, by diversifying social science, one can expect an increase in research on subjects often ignored. Patricia Hill Collins, sociologist at University of Maryland, realized that there was a gap in literature in academia on black women. Collins, who is African American, took it upon herself to write Black Feminist Thought, stating “So the voice that I now seek is both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the intersection of my unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical times” (viii). She saw meaning in writings by black women and in turn, black women read her work to this day, able to trust in her research and sincerity.

It is the job of social scientists to convey complex subjects and issues to the public. Otherwise, research will only be read by those within the Ivory Tower, and gather dust. There are already political scientists trying, such as Melissa Harris-Perry, who in her book Sister Citizen, includes explanations of regression models in the appendix. She even tells the reader what numbers to pay attention to and which to ignore. This is just an example. But it can be one of many if enough social scientists follow Jamieson’s advice and build connections to the public.

[1] Ali Venosa, “Hard Drug Abuse More Common Among White Kids, Blacks Still Jailed More,” MSN, March 17, 2006, accessed March 24, 2015, http://www.msn.com/en-us/health/wellness/hard-drug-abuse-more-common-among-white-kids-blacks-still-jailed-more/ar-BBqArcm?ocid=spartanntp.

[2] Janell Ross, “White Americans long for the 1950s, when they didn’t face so much discrimination,” The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2015, accessed March 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/17/white-americans-long-for-the-1950s-when-they-werent-such-victims-of-reverse-discrimination/.

[3] Michael Massing, The Fix (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 184.




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