Calling it a ‘war on science’ has consequences

What happens when a cover boils a measured article down to this provocative headline? National Geographic
National Geographic’s March 2015 cover story provided a thoughtful discussion around the question of “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” The actual cover, however, simply said “The War on Science.”

That article never actually uses the term “war on science” but claiming the existence of a such a conflict has become quite common.

There are books to tell readers “who’s waging it,” “why it matters,” and “what we can do about it” and many opinion articles and editorials in reputable publications describing its battles.

While we may fully agree as individuals that current approaches to science policy seem deeply problematic, we also wonder as communication scholars whether it makes strategic sense to call the current situation a “war.” Communication experts have long expressed concerns that framing an issue as a conflict might make finding a reasonable path forward harder by suggesting that people need to choose sides and vanquish their opponents in order to succeed.

Building on such arguments, our new research suggests that Americans may see scientists’ choice to accuse conservatives of waging a “war on science” as relatively aggressive compared to potential alternative ways of describing the current situation. In turn, this perceived aggressiveness may harm the credibility of scientists in conservative audiences that already have doubts about them.

Are these ground troops pushing back against a ‘war on science?’ AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Investigating the effect of the frame

Framing is how communicators put an issue in context – whether naively or on purpose. For years, communication scholars have criticized journalists for frequently framing issues as conflicts or games rather than trying to find more meaningful ways to understand disagreement. For example, researchers have argued that too much media coverage of climate change focuses on the “fight” between conservatives and liberals. This kind of framing problem isn’t exclusive to science-related coverage – but science communicators don’t need to contribute to the problem.

For our study, we surveyed 1,024 American adults who were part of an online panel, selected to be similar to the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, education and political ideology. We randomly assigned participants to read one of three different versions of a blog post about science or an article about baseball. Then we asked them a series of questions about their perception of scientists and other topics.

We adapted the science article from a 2017 Scientific American blog that framed the Trump administration’s approach to scientific evidence as a “war on science.” The article called the administration liars, talking about specific “attacks” and trying to rally scientists to fight back.

We trimmed this initial article for length and then changed some wording to make two alternate versions. Rather than a war, one framed the current situation as either a “challenge for science,” while the other used the frame of a “neglect of science.”

The “challenge for science” article kept some of same aggressive tone as the original article, calling out the White House for lying, but replacing war-related terms such the “attack on science” with the “challenge for science.” In contrast, the article that framed the administration as neglectful took a less aggressive tone, though still addressed the same ideas using the same structure.

What we ultimately found was that the level of perceived aggressiveness coupled with the “war on science” framing generally led conservatives, liberals and moderates to rate the credibility of scientists differently.

When liberals viewed the “war on science”-framed article as an aggressive message, their ratings of scientists’ credibility increased. On the other hand, when viewed as aggressive, the “war on science” framing pushed down conservatives’ perceptions of scientists’ credibility. While not everyone saw the same content as aggressive, when they did, it affected credibility perceptions.