Discuss Science, because it Matters.

dialogue matters.jpgWhat is interpersonal discussion, and why does it matter for citizen participation in both politics and science? According to McLeod and colleagues, interpersonal discussion is discussion that occurs in interpersonal networks. The degree to which an individual is involved in interpersonal networks is defined as his or her discussion with neighbors of community problems and frequency of getting together with other people and friends living nearby. But how does dialogue translate into political participation and caring more about science issues? Let us find out more from McLeod and Binder and colleagues.

In their 1999 article Community, communication, & participation: The role of mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation, McLeod and colleagues examined the role of a individual’s engagement in his or her community as well as mass media and interpersonal communications in predicting that individual’s tendency to participate in local political issues. The article considered both “institutionalized” acts of participation – like voting – and less traditional acts of participation – like attending public forums and speaking out in these forums. McLeod et al. describe a public forum as a venue where “average citizens … meet and question public officials and… present and discuss their views with others,” (p. 315-316). As this 1999 study revealed, the absence of communication from media to audiences and among citizens may lead to an undesirable lack in local political participation. According to the authors, “while community integration provides the infrastructure for participating, media and interpersonal communication provide the knowledge or incentives to use the opportunities for participation that are provided,” (p. 317).

So far, good news for communications on the political participation front. But dialogue between citizens may serve different purposes from mass media communications in television and newspaper news, for example. Citizens may turn to TV use to “fulfill the[ir] need for immediate local political information,” (McLeod et al. 1999, p. 329), but they are then encouraged by their interest in the topic to seek additional information in newspapers and perhaps increasingly online in our internet age, thus increasing their knowledge on the topic. But there is another option. Instead of seeking additional news sources, individuals may rather choose to engage in interpersonal discussion on the topic at hand. Dialogue between citizens seems to motivate individual to participate in their local communities, especially in the form of nontraditional public forums, for example. While newspaper hard news seems to have the strongest overall impact on “institutionalized” participation – voting, contacting public officials, etc. – interpersonal discussion is a stronger predictor of community participation in more nontraditional venues (McLeod et al. 1999).

But what do nontraditional forms of participation have to do with science, you might ask? Local dialogue between citizens, policy-makers, and scientists is seen as an important way to get citizens to care about and act on global warming. This is an issue that requires personal and local as well as institutional action and adaption. Hobson and Niemeyer have shown that dialogue has an impact on individuals’ perceptions of global warming beyond that of one-way informative information from scientists to audiences. Dialogue in the public sphere about global warming may foster aspects of community resilience and capacity to adapt in the face of a changing climate (Hobson and Niemeyer 2011). If interpersonal discussion can truly move citizens from media use to local participation, then it is of paramount importance to make science issue(s) communicable and understandable in terms of personal experience and in lay language.

It is interesting to consider recent efforts to integrate interpersonal discussion into what we know about public perceptions of science controversy. In 2010, Andrew R. Binder published a paper that helps us understand the differences between political and science-related communication and discussion pathways on how we perceive controversial science issues. Binder’s treatment of interpersonal discussion mirrors that of McLeod et al. He describes a function of news media as catalyzing conversation between citizens, where news stories “become the topics of conversation between citizens, with impacts on both levels of knowledge and participation,” (p. 385).

Binder found that interpersonal discussion can translate media messages about science issue into public concern and participation. According to Binder, “however much the media may shape how individuals think about an issue like global warming, it is important to consider other communication channels,” (2010, p. 402) including importantly interpersonal discussion. Binder showed that only through interpersonal discussion did citizens come to express concern for global warming after seeing or reading news about global warming. Binder pointed out that these results support the ideas that interpersonal discussion plays a role in helping citizens to make sense of complex issues, and that “citizens think of science issues in terms of their everyday lives, particularly in the case of climate change,” (Lowe et al., 2006; in Binder 2010, p. 402).

Perhaps even more interestingly, public perception of global warming depended on whether citizens discussed the issue in terms of politics or in terms of the science of global warming. Global climate change as a public issue is discussed and debated heavily in both political and scientific discussion contexts. Binder’s model incorporates both types of communication pathway: political and science-related discussion.

Binder's Model.jpg
Binder’s Model, above.

Binder found that mass media messages had no direct effect on concern about global warming, but science-related news had an indirect effect on concern through science-related discussion. Science-related discussion was related to greater concern about global warming while political discussion was related to less concern about global warming (p. 400).

According to Binder, “in the case of climate change, political discussion could result in reduced [concern] because of news coverage and the nature of disagreement… people who discuss politics may not agree that climate change exists, let alone that it is a problem,” (p. 403). This disagreement may be the result of “balanced” news coverage that undermines the scientific consensus surrounding climate change by pitting the few dissenting scientists against the many who agree that global warming is a major and real problem (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). News content shaped by partisan advocacy or emphasis on scientific uncertainty (McCright and Dunlap 2003; Binder 2010, p. 403) and subsequent disagreement in political discussion may lead to decreased public concern and participation in global warming.

I think that Binder’s results are interesting and of great importance for scientists, journalists, and policy-makers to learn from. The positive effects of science-related hard news and interpersonal discussion on concern about global warming may seem to be ‘good news for science news’. Binder discussed differences between science-related and political pathways in the news, writing that, as sources, “scientists tended to diagnose causes of global warming whereas political sources focused more on making judgments about possible policy options,” (Trumbo 1996, in Binder p. 390). Science-related discussion shaped by science news and deference to scientific authority may thus be associated with increased levels of concern “because disagreement was less likely or of a different stripe altogether… people who talk about science may defer to these scientists and accept the existence of climate change as self-evident,” (Binder 2010, p. 403).

But I can also see limitations to this ‘good news for science news’. First of all, Binder’s data shows that science-related discussion is higher among individuals of higher socioeconomic status. This may perhaps be related to individuals with higher education being better able to process and interpret science-related news, and thus engage in science-related discussion surrounding global warming. The global environmental problem is complex and difficult to understand even for scientists in non-environmental science disciplines. It would appear that making climate change ‘science’ news relatable and personally relevant in the public eye could further promote science-related discussion pathways. Equally important may be the promotion of scientific discussion through political news influenced by scientists and science journalists, prompting citizens to consider policy options while maintaining concern about global warming.

In any case, it seems that for global warming, dialogue is everything. And yet, the type of dialogue we engage in is just as important, further making the case for scientists and science journalists to get involved in both political and scientific communications geared toward the average citizen. We still have work to do.

This blog post is adapted from a response paper for MC 7005 at Louisiana State University.


Binder, A. (2009). Routes to Attention or Shortcuts to Apathy? Exploring Domain-Specific Communication Pathways and Their Implications for Public Perceptions of Controversial Science Science Communication, 32 (3), 383-411 DOI: 10.1177/1075547009345471

Boykoff, M. T. and J. M. Boykoff (2004). “Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press.” Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions-Part A 14(2): 125-136.

Hobson, K. and S. Niemeyer (2011). “Public responses to climate change: The role of deliberation in building capacity for adaptive action.” Global Environmental Change.

Lowe, T., Brown, K., Dessai, S., Doria, M. D., Haynes, K., & Vincent, K. (2006). Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 15, 435-457

McLeod, J. M., & Becker, L. B. (1974). Testing the validity of gratifications measures through political effects analysis. In J. G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.), The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 137-164). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

McLeod, J. M., Scheufele, D. A., & Moy, P. (1999) Community, communication, & participation: The role of mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation. Political Communication, 16, 315-336.

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2003). Defeating Kyoto: The conservative movement’s impact on U.S. climate change policy. Social Problems, 50(3), 348-373
Mutz, D. C. (2006). Hearing the other side: Deliberative versus participatory democracy, Cambridge Univ Pr.

Trumbo, C. (1996). Constructing climate change: Claims and frames in U.S. news coverage of an environmental issue. Public Understanding of Science, 5, 269-283.