I’ve sliced away the nuance to achieve that headline but the possibility of confrontations/disagreements between scientists (or experts of any stripe) and the public is always present, if not explicitly so, in any debate about public discussion/engagement/dialogue of science.
The topic has popped up in this blog again due to a new publication from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ project on Improving the Scientific Community’s Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology. From the news item on physorg.com,
[The project] examined the ways in which scientists engage with the public, and how their mutual understanding could be improved. More than fifty scientists, engineers, public policy experts, lawyers, ethicists, and journalists participated in a series of workshops that focused on four areas of public concern: the siting of nuclear waste repositories; the spread of personal genetic information; the next generation of the Internet; and the risks and benefits of emerging energy technologies
Amongst other conclusions,
Scientists and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration.
There is a 25 page paper available from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences written by Chris Mooney, Do Scientists Understand the Public? The PDF version is free, the paper version costs $6 US. Mooney has also written an article about this project for the Washington Post,
Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes. [emphasis mine]
Mooney points out,
… 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.
Assuming that the science is incontrovertible and the public panic is baseless then the notion of defusing controversy seems reasonable. I’m a little uneasy about applying this notion to any other situation but I have to admit when I first started looking into nanotechnology I would have been in perfect agreement with Mooney’s use of ‘defusing controversy’. The turning point was a biotechnology workshop (2 or 3 years ago) where I chatted with a few social scientists who expressed reservations about ‘defusing controversy’ after participating in public engagement and public dialogue exercises as it could render the work into a form of manipulation. I have commented previously about this notion of public engagement projects as prophylactic treatments.
Mooney’s article touches on many issues and it’s a worthwhile read whether or not you have the time for his 25 page paper written for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The article alone has touched off further discussion. Matthew Nisbett (Framing Science) comments,
My only critique of Chris’ extremely valuable essay is how he frames the introduction and defines the importance of science communication. As I commented at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog, the lede to the essay employs some of the very same exaggerated metaphors that often distract scientists and their organizations from successful public engagement efforts. Until we stop defining science-society relations in terms of “war,” “anti-science,” “street fights,” “assaults,” “cultural collisions,” “exploding protests,” ” widening divides,” and “dangerous gulfs,” public engagement efforts will always be hindered. These metaphors and comparisons tend to reinforce polarized views, accent differences between groups, falsely dichotomize complex issues, and appeal to only the most ideologically committed individuals.
It would seem that Nisbet and I are somewhat at odds (given my headline) but this comment suggests otherwise,
Empowering the public to participate in collective decisions over nanotechnology or biomedicine requires science organizations to accept that sometimes a well-informed and consulted public may prefer policies that cut against the direct interests of science. If these preferences are not given formal weight in decision-making, then any exercise in public engagement is merely a sophisticated effort at winning public consent to the preferred policies of scientists rather than inviting actual public participation in decision-making. [emphasis mine]
Nisbett covers a lot of ground in this posting as well as recommending other articles and books that extend the conversation beyond the two-way (sender/receiver) model of communication.
Dietram Scheufele at nanopublic also discussed the paper Mooney authored for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences but focused on something a little different (from his June 29, 2010 posting (I can’t link to the individual post, so you may need to use the date for searching purposes),
While the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]/Pew survey cited in Mooney’s piece suggests that scientists are weary of getting caught up in the often heated public discourse surrounding scientific controversies, more systematic survey data from Europe, Asia and the U.S. show that this is not true for many of the leading scientists in fields, such as nanotechnology or stem cell research. A number of colleagues and I detailed these findings in a piece in The Scientist last year:
“What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment [in the AAAS data] may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field.
Scheufele makes an excellent point about the importance of the question’s wording. There’s lots to consider in this discussion and I may come back to it.