A new piece of research seems to be suggesting that there’s not much point to trying to build public consensus on certain kinds of science and technology issues. From the news item on Nanowerk,
When it comes to public issues pertaining to science and technology, “talking it out” doesn’t seem to work. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that the more people discuss the risks and benefits associated with scientific endeavors, the more entrenched they become in their viewpoint – and the less likely they are to see the merit of other viewpoints.
“This research highlights the difficulty facing state and federal policy leaders when it comes to high-profile science and technology issues, such as stem cell research or global warming,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “Government agencies view research on these issues as vital and necessary for the country’s future, but building public consensus for that research is becoming increasingly difficult.”
It seems that government agencies’ perspectives on building consensus focusses on agreement to whatever decision has been arrived at by the agency,
… researchers focused on public debate related to the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which the federal government discussed building in one of six sites around the country. Some members of the public opposed building a facility housing highly infectious animal diseases in their community. …
The researchers conducted surveys of residents living near the proposed sites to collect data on people’s perceptions of the potential risks and benefits associated with NBAF. Specifically, the results showed that, among people who opposed the facility, the more an individual discussed the issue with other people in their community, the more firmly entrenched he/she became in his/her perception of greater risks and fewer benefits. Conversely, among those who supported the facility, increased discussion led to an increased perception of benefits and a decreased perception of risks.
This research was done as part of an overarching grant project funded by the National Science Foundation, which is aimed at understanding the public opinion and policy dynamics surrounding site-selections for federal research facilities.
“This work will likely inform future decision-making on how federal agencies engage the public in regard to large-scale research initiatives,” Binder says. [emphasis mine]
So, the researchers observed that the more people talked about the situation, the more entrenched their attitudes became. The proposed outcome is that federal agencies will use this research information when considering future public engagement activities.
This is not a promising development from two angles. First, it seems likely federal agencies will not wish to engage with the public if there’s a chance that opposition will harden in a situation where opposition to an agency’s plans outweighs support. Second, there’s the implication that social science is being used to determine if a public engagement practice serves federal agencies’ needs.
José López’s article, Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology, makes the point that science fiction fulfills the function of providing a critique of emerging sciences and technologies where the social sciences and humanities may have been co-opted in pursuit of ‘consensus’,
Moreover, the novum also assigns the social sciences and humanities the function of analyzing and contributing to the management of social processes necessary to arrive at the proposed future. (p. 349 of López article in Nanotechnology Challenges; Implications for Philosophy, Ethics and Society, edited by Joachim Schummer and Davis Baird, 2006)
(NOTE: Novum is a device (a scientifically-plausible innovation) used in science fiction writing to create new worlds. In this case, López is suggesting that the ‘novum’ is being used in real life as per nanotechnology and, by implication, other emerging technologies. See a Wikipedia essay about the novum, here.)
Further on, López quotes Samuel R. Delaney about the function that literary science fiction provides,
Science fiction is not about the future; it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortion of the present. (p. 352 of López article)
For another take on Binder’s research, you can check out the November 4, 2010 posting on Dietram Scheufele’s blog, nanopublic.
Tags: Andrew Binder, Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology, critique of social science and humanities, Dietram Scheufele, José López, nanopublic, National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, NBAF, Samuel R. Delaney, science fiction