29 July 2010

Recognizing science 'ignorance' as value differences

Posted by koneil

If people don’t agree with a scientist’s conclusions, is it because they don’t understand the science? Or is it that their beliefs and values make them want to reject the scientist’s conclusions?

Journalist and author Chris Mooney presented those questions in Washington D.C. in late June while discussing the findings of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences inquiry into how scientists could better communicate with the public. Beginning in 2008, the Academy had invited scientists to talk with journalists and officials who would represent the public. The groups discussed four science and technology topics that have engendered differing levels of controversy: the Internet, nuclear waste, genetic information, and alternative energy. Mooney summarized the American Academy’s findings in a report called “Do Scientists Understand the Public?”

Public perception of science is something that Mooney has closely studied. He recently published a book on the subject, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, and co-authors a science communication blog.

While the public’s ignorance may play a role in disagreements over science and technology issues, Mooney said, it doesn’t fully explain divides over issues. For examples, he pointed to surveys that show that politics trumps education for explaining beliefs. Republicans who are more highly educated are less likely to accept the scientific evidence for climate change, he pointed out, whereas it’s the reverse for Democrats. And parents who choose not to vaccinate their children also tend to be well-educated, but their perceptions of risk differ from those of public health officials.

“If you’re better educated, perhaps you’re better at going out and finding the information that supports what you want to think anyway,” Mooney said. “That’s problematic for traditional science communications approaches that just attempt to ‘set the record straight’,” he says, because for “people [who] already have a paradigm or world view …contradictory information is just going to glance off of them… The resistance [to a technology or scientific concept] often has nothing to do with the science.” In fact, information that was shared to change views might instead strengthen the already-formed perceptions of the audience.

The Academy makes some recommendations for scientists and engineers: seek public input early about your research; consider non-technical, value-based concerns people may have; use social science to understand public attitudes; and engage with the public more, in order to build trust in scientists and engineers.

Mooney pointed out that, as the number of traditional news outlets has shrunk, there is less and less science reporting to be found in newspapers and on television news shows.  So whether scientists prefer it or not, it is likely that they will play a greater role in explaining their work directly to the public. Indeed, he said, fewer science graduate students are going on to jobs in academia, and instead are finding positions that involve communicating science.

So, should scientists also shoulder the responsibility of doing social research on how to best communicate and avoid conflict? Mooney said that scientists can turn to the science communication experts for help, but that it’s still important to understand where conflicts with an unreceptive public might arise, especially for issues about which the public has not yet formed an opinion.

“While you can’t see in advance what will happen, you can do preparatory work to avoid future conflicts,” he said. “It’s useful to view the gap between scientists and the public as a two-cultures problem. Rather looking at the rift and saying, ‘Those people over there need to come closer to me,’ I would suggest we should be saying instead ‘What can I do to move closer to those people over there?’”

-Kathleen O’Neil, AGU Science Writer