AAAS initiative, Chris Mooney paper ask: do scientists understand the public?

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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (two AAAS’s) hosted a seminar in Washington DC on June 29 to unveil a new initiative to understand the knowledge gap between scientists and the public, and how it relates to associated public policy conflicts. Science writer Chris Mooney began by saying, “The study is driven by a sense that there is something not quite right, not quite healthy, about the relationship between scientists and the public.”

Unlike the traditional “deficit” model of public scientific knowledge—the notion that more science education is the antidote to public ignorance—this effort asked a new question: do scientists understand the public?

To open the conversation, AAAS held pilot workshops on four science-policy issues: the next generation of the Internet, public perception of nuclear waste disposal, the spread of personal genetic information, and the risks and benefits of emerging energy technologies.  In these areas, “scientists have met with varying degrees of success in working with the public,” offering a departure point for a broader inquiry.

Science writer Chris Mooney presented his paper synthesizing the workshop content, framing the issue with traditional assumptions about the origin of conflicts surrounding science-based policy issues.

Mooney pointed out that, while the tendency in the science community is to attribute public opposition to ignorance, the picture is much more complicated.  Public opinion on science-policy issues is a question of values, politics, and perceptions of risk, Mooney said, and can’t necessarily be swayed by providing more information.

On the climate issue, he said, this point is underscored by recent survey data showing that college-educated Republicans are much less likely to accept the scientific consensus than those who are not as well-educated.  Thus the problem is not the level of education, but the “powerful ideological sieve” through which information is filtered.

Mooney distinguished issues that already have a history of conflict—such as nuclear waste and climate change—from issues with the potential for future conflict, such as personal genetic information and climate geoengineering.  On climate change and nuclear waste, “crisis communication moments were missed,” Mooney said, with “Climategate” being a prime example.

While this and future work can provide guidelines for future engagement between scientists and the public, it’s not clear how it can be applied to an issue like climate change, where opinions are already entrenched and highly correlated with political ideology.  While we can point the finger at ferocious climate change deniers, that won’t resolve the underlying issue of how and why people engage with scientific information.

The AAAS initiative is intended to be the beginning of a conversation, and produced recommendations for future work:

1. Scientists and engineers should seek input from the public at the earliest stages of technology development and should continue to seek consensus through a participatory process.

2. When assessing the risks and benefits of new technologies, scientists and engineers should account for the non-technical and value-based concerns of the public in addition to technical concerns.

3. The expert community should value and utilize data from social scientists in order to better understand public attitudes toward science and technology.

4. Scientists and engineers need to create more opportunities to establish the trust and confidence of the public.

Chris Mooney, Do Scientists Understand the Public? paper is posted here.

Chris is also continuing the discussion on the “Intersection” blog he writes with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Their book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, came out in paperback this month.

Climate Science Watch plans to follow up with a discussion with Chris, in particular on how he would apply his analysis to the problematic relationship between science and policymaking on climate change.

Earlier CSW posts:

June 11: Large, consistent majority of Americans believe climate change is happening, want government to act

June 9: New national survey: Public concern about global warming is once again on the rise

February 8: How does the politicization of climate change affect public opinion?

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