I’ve got a piece in this weekend’s Sunday Outlook section in the Post, entitled “If scientists want to educate the public, start by listening.” The argument is that although people often seem to resist science and argue back against it, they’re frequently motivated by nonscientific considerations at the core–nonscientific considerations that scientists themselves often don’t really understand. But alas, this means that arguing with them scientifically often doesn’t yield the desired result. Example:
Or consider the long-running controversy over plans to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Although many technical experts have long argued that the repository would be safe, this has hardly convinced frightened and angry Nevadans. In 1991, the American Nuclear Energy Council even launched an ad campaign to educate the public about the Yucca Mountain plan but it backfired. Nearly a third of viewers became more resistant to the repository, and among those who were already opposed, their resolve strengthened. (Just 15 percent had a more favorable opinion of the repository after seeing the ad, and half of viewers did not change their minds.)
The piece also makes a similar point with respect to climate change and vaccination.
So then what is the solution?
Initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation — before controversies explode — show great promise. In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public’s views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution. In the United States, meanwhile, the federally funded National Nanotechnology Initiative has sponsored a great deal of social science research to explore possible public concerns that may arise as this new field of technology advances.
In sum, work with experts who understand the public to figure out what is driving concerns and resistance–and ideally, do so before you have a long running controversy with lots of bad blood and entrenched positions.
The Post piece mentions in my byline that I’m “author of a paper on the relationship between scientists and the public to be released Tuesday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.” Indeed, there is a much more detailed and lengthy paper that will be coming out shortly–as well as a public event on Tuesday at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to present the paper and engage in a discussion about it. You can register here to attend. Also appearing: American Association for the Advancement of Science President Alan Leshner, American Academy of Arts and Sciences Executive Director Leslie Berlowitz, and Resources for the Future scholar Robert Fri. For more details, click here.