Ok, 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….