Do Scientists Understand the Public, Cont.

By Chris Mooney | June 30, 2010 9:26 am

Do Scientists Understand the PublicOk, I’m now officially overwhelmed by the volume of response to the Washington Post piece and the American Academy paper. Over at DotEarth, for instance–and under the marvelous headline “Scientists From Mars Face Public From Venus”–Andy Revkin has solicited expert responses, and so we hear from Randy Olson, Matt Nisbet, Mike Hulme, John Horgan, Tom Bowman, Sheila Jasanoff, and Robert Brulle. They all have a lot to say. I like this from Nisbet:

The highlighted points of emphasis in the report have been the dominant focus of research in the field of science communication and science studies for the past 15 years and the basis for recent innovative projects such as the World Wide Views on Global Warming initiative.  It is therefore deeply encouraging that these same points of emphasis emerged from the  meetings convened by the American Academy. It’s a major sign that research in the field has contributed to a cultural shift in how leaders in U.S. science view public engagement.

I agree, but I don’t think the research alone has done this. I think that the timing was right for hard scientists to look across at social scientists and see what they had to say.

Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School, meanwhile–my recent collaborator on the “Unruly Democracy” conference about science blogging–puts the point a bit more sharply:

Chris is right. People often have different underlying reasons when they are arguing about science. But this is a point that students of scientific controversies have documented over more than thirty years. Why has it taken so long for insights from science and technology studies to travel to the American Academy and the scientific community at large? Why is this being treated as news now? Could it be that science has trouble hearing certain kinds of messages, whether they come from publics or from other academic disciplines?

Can we agree on better late than never?

In my experience as a journalist–and Dr Jasanoff knows this, since I ventured into her office 6 or 7 years ago pretty clueless about the field of science and technology studies, and had some catch up work to do–you just don’t hear these science studies/social sciences perspectives on a first pass through contested science issues. Rather, the initial narrative encountered is the scientific illiteracy/deficit model narrative. It just has a strong cultural grip. It requires going a lot deeper before you get to that scholarship.

So, I certainly agree that the work in Jasanoff’s field (and Nisbet’s field) needs to be better publicized. I also agree–as some blog responses have shown–that there remains a lot of resistance to it. But again, that’s changing, and perhaps the American Academy’s work will be a landmark moment for reconciling hard scientists with social scientists and science studies folks.

Meanwhile, we had a packed event at the AAAS yesterday, where CEO Alan Leshner and Bob Fri of Resources for the Future were both strongly supportive of the attempt to cease blaming the public in science controversies and start understanding said public. Afterward, a lot of questions came in about science communication, public opinion, and how to get different kinds of experts working together. I believe the whole thing will be webcast. We’ll see.

I feel honored that the American Academy allowed me to be so prominently involved in its very important research initiative (which was funded by the Sloan Foundation). At this point, I’m going to keep reading what comes out, and sit back and compose a longer response to it all. Stand by on that.

P.S. Chad Orzel has a good post and I’ve replied a bit in the comments….

Comments (12)

  1. Mike

    Quick thought experiment: What happens if all the time, energy, money and research into trying to convince the American public that there is a global warming problem that can only be solved with a redistribution of wealth scheme, was instead focused on making alternative forms of energy economically feasible? Does the concept of a problem “dying a natural death” escape you? Provide the cheaper and cleaner alternative, without requiring socialist subsidies, and no one will argue about whether there is global warming or not. We are a Constitutional Republic, not a Scientocracy. You have to compete in the “arena of idea’s”. Cheap alarmist rhetoric is fine for recruiting college kids who respond to the “save the world” fantasy, but there are the rest of us who require a a real threat and a reasonable response.

  2. ChrisD

    Well, Joe Romm doesn’t think much of either Chris’s work on this or Andy Revkin’s blog post about it:

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/06/30/mooney-revkin-climate-science-media-communications/

    I certainly don’t agree with everything Romm says, but I do think he has a point that there are big, big differences between the antivax people and the global-warming-is-a-hoax people. For one thing, there are a LOT more climate “skeptics” than parents who don’t get their kids vaccinated. For another, there’s be a deliberate campaign of disinformation on climate with some big money behind it. If there’s anything similar in the antivax world, I’m not aware of it (although I admit that I haven’t paid that much attention to it–so maybe I’m wrong about that).

    Interestingly, although vaccination is an important element of the Post piece, it’s barely mentioned in the much longer AAAS paper.

  3. Gaythia

    Chris, I would be sincerely interested in your feedback to my post on Matt Nesbitt’s blog regarding Yucca Mountain at http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2010/06/reflections_on_american_academ.php#comments. I’ve also read Chad’s take and commented there. Why is Chad baffled? Why does it seem almost like some of us are reading two different articles?

    I’d also be interested in your response to the discussion on Dr. Isis blog regarding privilege, vaccines and your op-ed post. See http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/2010/06/kerfuffle_i_love_kerfuffles.php

  4. Zach Voch

    Chris,

    I just got your response to my comments on Orzel’s post. The criticisms I listed focused mostly on the op-ed, so much of the blogoruckus can be explained by items lost in summary. Also, for this:

    “I also agree–as some blog responses have shown–that there remains a lot of resistance to it. But again, that’s changing, and perhaps the American Academy’s work will be a landmark moment for reconciling hard scientists with social scientists and science studies folks.”

    It might help quell some of the reaction of the “as if we didn’t know ideology was the problem already, not ignorance” form to note that the skeptical blogging community is quite aware of this, if not academia generally. The relevant blogs I read (from Rosenhouse’s Rosenau’s to Orac to Coyne’s to Benson’s to… etc) might take pieces and papers like this more generously (some already do) if this is noted.

    As I’ve only recently read your blog, I’m not sure if you have done this already and been ignored. Also, I’d like to direct you to this post. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

  5. James Fisher

    Lets see if I remember this correctly…

    Science<money<politics<public perception

    So if you want to do science on something like climate change, you'll need money. That money comes from the government (i.e. politicians). The politicians are worried about what the voters think, or their public perception. The major break down is in the public perception, where does the public it's information?

    There is no single place the public gets it's information, and that's what makes it hard for scientist to get their message through, that and a majority of us have very poor public speaking skills. What we really need is a study on where do American get their information on such topics? Is it from the news, politicians, their churches? Scientist can scream down the hall way, but if no one is there listening, who will hear it?

  6. James Fisher

    Science was suppose to be

    public perception trumps politics trumps money trumps science, apparently this forum doesn’t like the greater than symbol

  7. ChrisD

    James:

    I think you can use “&gt;”

    public perception > politics > money > science

  8. Anthony McCarthy

    Forget the >. The real issue is IF science wants the financial and political support of a public which is under no obligation to give it, then an intelligent scientist will realize they’ve got to convince them. Only an unintelligent one would think they didn’t have to convince them and an even stupider one would think the way to get the support they want is by insulting them. I’ll bet they’d never defend their department’s budget to the one controlling it that way. Kiss up, kick down is a stupid analysis of the issue.

  9. gillt

    Since McCarthy and the AGW denier in the first post have similar views about what science is and what scientists should be doing with all their free time, maybe the two can get together and brainstorm a solution for us.

  10. GM

    8. Anthony McCarthy Says:
    July 1st, 2010 at 10:15 am
    Forget the >. The real issue is IF science wants the financial and political support of a public which is under no obligation to give it, then an intelligent scientist will realize they’ve got to convince them. Only an unintelligent one would think they didn’t have to convince them and an even stupider one would think the way to get the support they want is by insulting them. I’ll bet they’d never defend their department’s budget to the one controlling it that way. Kiss up, kick down is a stupid analysis of the issue.

    As I have already said, you are an ignorant anti-science bigot. The list of things that are worth funding in a working society starts with science and does not extend much further than that. It definitely does not include a >1 trillion a year military budget, another trillion on keeping morbidly obese semi-illiterate morons alive so that they can continue eating, yet another unknown but very big number spent on advertising stuff that the morons will eventually buy, and these are only the most flagrant in terms of total spending misuses of resources.

    Yes you are right, science with its gigantic 50 billion a year completely does not deserve even that…

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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