Soapbox Post

Hello again from Arc et Senans, France. Today was our first full day of talks. They are working us hard. Breakfast starts at 7am and the talks go to 10:30pm. The good food has continued, thankfully, but nevertheless there was a fair amount of frustration in the air today. A number of talks stressed the idea that the public does not trust scientists the way it used to. The lament was that this turn away from science means that scientists lose some of their legitimacy and the useful advice given to policymakers does not receive the priority it deserves. The gravity of this problem was stressed by pointing out the desperate need for science to inform crucial policy debates about global warming and genetically modified food.


This frustration is not an uncommon one. The protests at the French nanodebates, the rejection of GM foods by certain societies, and the demand that intelligent design be taught in elementary school classrooms are all events that convince scientists that the public does not appreciate them.


One of the presentations today gave clues as to where this distrust comes from. It cited the technological catastrophes of the 20th century as giving plenty of reasons for why the public is somewhat disenchanted with science. This is certainly part of it, but I think the problem lies somewhat deeper. Society has forgiven institutions for mistakes before. However, it is difficult to forgive when there is a communication failure. And I fear there is a failure of communication between science and the public.


Scientists have made some important steps to remedy this. Many scientists hold the belief that if only the public understood science, they would receive the support they warrant. This has led to a number of educational campaigns aimed at everyone from kindergartners to the elderly. Now scientists don’t always present an accurate picture of themselves.  In one of today’s sessions, Dan Sarewitz lamented the fact that many climate scientists feel that they must hide their disagreements and uncertainties in the hopes that it will increase their political power to reduce carbon emissions, but they have taken steps to reach out to the public.


Unfortunately, scientists frequently have a difficult time listening to what the public has to say in return. Scientists sometimes forget that the policy response that seems obviously best, based on scientific findings, is not the only policy response. Alternative approaches may appear uninformed, self-centered, or even subversive, rather than the result of a different set of legitimate values. When the public questions or outright rejects a policy borne of scientific findings, scientists can take it as a personal rejection of their expertise.


One of the talks today stressed that some of the critics of science aren’t simply skeptics, they’re violently attacking science. The speaker chastised these critics for eliminating the possibility of public debate and thereby any chance for resolving the issue. Statements like these give me pause. It may be that these protesters just get their kicks by being aggressive, but it may also be the case that they are convinced that their values have no standing in the debates that scientists are willing to have with them; they don’t believe that their voice will be heard if they play by the rules outlined by scientists, so they must find another way to get noticed. The point of my blog yesterday was that different sets of values exist in the world. When we don’t take the time to recognize that other sets of values exist and can be legitimate, we often end up imposing our values on others. Those marginalized by this process don’t always take it sitting down.


My hope is that if more scientists take the time to listen and recognize that there are legitimate values that their proposals don’t always support, they’ll find that not everyone who opposes science is anti-science. Some simply oppose the values promoted by scientifically justified policies. There’s an important difference between the two. I think scientists will find that their knowledge will receive much more respect if they don’t take it personally when their findings don’t lead directly to policy. Political decisions require a vast array of input, and scientific findings are usually only a small part of that input.


I don’t know if this approach will work, but I think scientists taking the time to listen to the public would be a nice complement to the scientific push to educate the public. The inadequacy of the latter can be shown by the fact that research (including some done by CNS-ASU) has shown that some people get measurably less optimistic about science the better they understand it. A scientist who can’t see any other value system as being legitimate would be boggled by this finding. But a scientist who recognizes that there are different ways of prioritizing decisions may begin to understand that while science is an incredibly important way of ordering the world, it is not the only legitimate way.


The public education approach is sometimes derided by science policy analysts as the deficit model of the public understanding of science. They critique it for being a uni-directional approach to communication. In return, I’d like to call my proposal the deficit model of the scientific understanding of the public. Taken on its own, it would likely be as ineffective as the current model. But if the two were combined and there was communication in both directions, it might simultaneously compel scientists to increase the breadth of values that informs their policy recommendations and increase the impact of the findings of science on political decisions.



About the Author:  Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change.  He currently is in France, participating in IHEST’s European Summer School.


[more Blogging from France posts]
Aug 27, 2010 @ 4:44pm
Thank you very much for your comments Praj. And thank you very much for clarifying my mistake! You phrase what I meant to say much more eloquently than I was able to at midnight last night with a few glasses of wine in me. I did mean that rejecting a scientifically based recommendation does not mean one rejects science.

Although I do have to admit that as scientifically justified policies become battlegrounds for value disputes, there are people that make the mental transition from "I disagree with your science-based policy" to "I disagree with science." When proponents of a particular policy contend that to reject the policy is to reject the science behind it, some critics are tempted to simply say - "OK then I reject your policy and your science." That can be especially dangerous as it further compromises the legitimacy of science.

Prajwal Kulkarni
Aug 27, 2010 @ 12:41pm
Great post Jamey. I think part of the problem is that everyone--scientists, policy-makers, politicians--toss around phrases like "data-driven decision-making" and "science is the foundation of policy." Within this framework, it's somewhat understandable for scientists to see a "personal rejection of their expertise" when a policy "borne of scientific findings" is rejected. After all, if science is so important to DM and policy, how is it reasonable to reject certain policies?

Another problem is that we use the word science as if it's a universal monolith. And so people who oppose or support one part of science are carelessly branded as "pro" or "anti." I think you fall into this trap a bit when you write "not everyone who opposes science is anti-science." By definition, if you oppose science, you are in fact anti-science. What I think you mean is that opposing a few science-based recommendations in a single scientific controversy does not make one anti-science.

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