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At the National Academies, Research on Framing Evolution

In the latest issue of the journal CBE Life Sciences, National Academies senior staffers Jay Labov and Barbara Kline Pope describe the audience research that informed the writing, design, and promotion of the recent report Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Citing the articles I co-authored last year at Science and The Scientist, Labov and Pope describe how the National Academies commissioned focus groups and survey research in order to figure out how to “frame” the contents of the report in a way that made evolutionary science personally meaningful and relevant to non-traditional audiences:

…this new edition was shaped to a large extent by a careful program of audience research. This research was initiated to bring about a better understanding of the frame of reference that the intended audiences bring to this issue. The committee decided early in the revision process that its goal was to successfully inform opinion leaders and influentials who could then use this information to help reframe discussions about the evolution “controversy.”

By presenting authoritative scientific information in ways that address the questions and concerns of those who are unsure about teaching evolution in science classrooms, the authoring committee would provide opinion leaders and influentials (scientists, business leaders, clergy, teachers, members of school boards, policymakers, judges, lawyers, and others) with the tools needed to change the understanding and decisions of other people who comprise the “wobbly middle.” They defined the “wobbly middle” as the large percentage of citizens which various national polls have shown to be undecided about whether or not evolution, creationism, or some combination should be taught in public school science classrooms.

As I described in the panel presentation at AAAS and in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast, the National Academies discovered that an important interpretative storyline for the public was to define evolutionary science as a building block for advances in medical research and to simultaneously reinforce for audiences that in fact there was no conflict between the teaching of evolution and the great majority of religious traditions.

As Labov and Pope write, these conclusions from the research run counter to what they had originally and intuitively believed might be the central convincing arguments for the public:

Based on what was learned from understanding our audiences, the organization and presentation of sections of the final product are different than the authoring committee and project staff originally envisioned. For example, the committee began its work shortly after the decision of Judge John Jones III was announced in Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Board of Education. The committee originally thought that this decision should be prominently touted throughout the booklet as one of the main reasons why various forms of creationism (including intellegent design) should not be taught in the science classroom–it’s illegal.

However, feedback from our research suggested that the public does not readily understand the role of the courts in such matters and believes that federal courts should not intervene in controversies in areas (such as school curriculum) that are viewed largely as locally-controlled matters. Thus, while the booklet provides information about various court cases (see Figure 2), these decisions are not featured as prominently as originally planned.

The leadership that the National Academies has taken in applying knowledge from the social sciences and in conducting audience research is a model that should be replicated across other areas including hot button issues such as climate change or energy but also nascent debates such as those over nanotechnology.

As the example of the evolution report makes clear, sometimes what we believe to be the most effective way to engage the public on an issue does not hold up under empirical investigation. Communication is a science and should be informed by both theoretical expertise and audience research. The National Academies has taken a bold and important new approach to public engagement, offering an example for other science organizations and institutions to emulate.

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