First, Al Gore won an Academy Award; next, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing global warming to the forefront of public discussion with his film, An Inconvenient Truth. Despite Gore’s success, more needs to be done to unite public opinion on the issue, according to Matthew C. Nisbet, PhD, a professor at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC.
“There are two Americas when it comes to climate-change perceptions,” says Dr. Nisbet, who recently published a study in Public Opinion Quarterly that analyzed 20 years of U.S. public opinion trends on global warming. “During the past year, Democrats have grown even more concerned about the issue, while Republicans remain relatively unmoved.”
Dr. Nisbet is the coauthor of “The Future of Public Engagement,” an article published in the October issue of The Scientist magazine. He and coauthor Dietram Scheufele assert that those aiming to capture the public’s attention on scientific issues need to learn how to communicate by shaping or framing information in a way that makes it personally relevant to diverse demographic groups.
The reason Gore and others have failed to unite public opinion across political lines, Dr. Nisbet contends, is because they have focused on factors that frighten—an approach he calls “the catastrophe frame.”
“When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself to the counterargument that your message is alarmist,” he says. “It is very easy for people to rely on their biases or their partisanship when it comes to making up their minds.”
In The Scientist, Dr. Nisbet identifies eight steps scientists and others should take to best engage the public in scientific issues:
- Do the research about communication, audiences and media.
- Stay on message, and provide information tailored to the audience.
- Focus on editors and producers, who often make assignment decisions.
- Think local TV news, from which most Americans get their information.
- Strengthen partnerships with churches, as they are at the heart of many communities.
- Facilitate incidental exposure so audiences encounter science in unexpected places.
- Provide communication training for young scientists.
- Advocate more funding for science communication.
Gore says he plans to donate all of the Nobel Prize money to his bipartisan environmental foundation, the Alliance for Climate Protection, to change public opinion on global warming. Dr. Nisbet says Gore will be successful if he makes a real effort to adopt frames other than the catastrophe approach and enlists the support and participation of less partisan public figures and opinion leaders.
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