Tag Archives: Dietram Scheufele

Unintended consequences of reading science news online

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dominique Brossard and  Dietram Scheufele have written a cautionary piece for the AAAS’s (American Association for the Advancement of Science) magazine, Science, according to a Jan. 3, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A science-inclined audience and wide array of communications tools make the Internet an excellent opportunity for scientists hoping to share their research with the world. But that opportunity is fraught with unintended consequences, according to a pair of University of Wisconsin-Madison life sciences communication professors.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, writing in a Perspectives piece for the journal Science, encourage scientists to join an effort to make sure the public receives full, accurate and unbiased information on science and technology.

“This is an opportunity to promote interest in science — especially basic research, fundamental science — but, on the other hand, we could be missing the boat,” Brossard says. “Even our most well-intended effort could backfire, because we don’t understand the ways these same tools can work against us.”

The Jan. 3, 2012 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release by Chris Barncard (which originated the news item) notes,

Recent research by Brossard and Scheufele has described the way the Internet may be narrowing public discourse, and new work shows that a staple of online news presentation — the comments section — and other ubiquitous means to provide endorsement or feedback can color the opinions of readers of even the most neutral science stories.

Online news sources pare down discussion or limit visibility of some information in several ways, according to Brossard and Scheufele.

Many news sites use the popularity of stories or subjects (measured by the numbers of clicks they receive, or the rate at which users share that content with others, or other metrics) to guide the presentation of material.

The search engine Google offers users suggested search terms as they make requests, offering up “nanotechnology in medicine,” for example, to those who begin typing “nanotechnology” in a search box. Users often avail themselves of the list of suggestions, making certain searches more popular, which in turn makes those search terms even more likely to appear as suggestions.

Brossard and Scheufele have published an earlier study about the ‘narrowing’ effects of search engines such as Google, using the example of the topic ‘nanotechnology’, as per my May 19, 2010 posting. The researchers appear to be building on this earlier work,

The consequences become more daunting for the researchers as Brossard and Scheufele uncover more surprising effects of Web 2.0.

In their newest study, they show that independent of the content of an article about a new technological development, the tone of comments posted by other readers can make a significant difference in the way new readers feel about the article’s subject. The less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research described in the news story.

“The day of reading a story and then turning the page to read another is over,” Scheufele says. “Now each story is surrounded by numbers of Facebook likes and tweets and comments that color the way readers interpret even truly unbiased information. This will produce more and more unintended effects on readers, and unless we understand what those are and even capitalize on them, they will just cause more and more problems.”

If even some of the for-profit media world and advocacy organizations are approaching the digital landscape from a marketing perspective, Brossard and Scheufele argue, scientists need to turn to more empirical communications research and engage in active discussions across disciplines of how to most effectively reach large audiences.

“It’s not because there is not decent science writing out there. We know all kinds of excellent writers and sources,” Brossard says. “But can people be certain that those are the sites they will find when they search for information? That is not clear.”

It’s not about preparing for the future. It’s about catching up to the present. And the present, Scheufele says, includes scientific subjects — think fracking, or synthetic biology — that need debate and input from the public.

Here’s a citation and link for the Science article,

Science, New Media, and the Public by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele in Science 4 January 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6115 pp. 40-41 DOI: 10.1126/science.1232329

This article is behind a paywall.

Science communication at the US National Academy of Sciences

I guess it’s going to be a science communication kind of day on this blog. Dr. Andrew Maynard on his 2020 Science blog posted a May 22, 2012 piece about a recent two-day science communication event at the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.

Titled The Science of Science Communication and held May 21 – 22, 2012, I was a little concerned about the content since it suggests a dedication to metrics (which are useful but I find often misused) and the possibility of a predetermined result for science communication. After watching a webcast of the first session (Introduction and Overviews offered by Baruch Fischhof [Carnegie Mellon University] and Dietram Scheufele [University of Wisconsin at Madison], 55:35 mins.), I’m relieved to say that the first two presenters mostly avoided those pitfalls.

You can go here to watch any of the sessions held during that two days, although I will warn you that these are not TED talks. The shortest are roughly 27 mins. with most running over 1 hour, while a couple  of them run over two hours.

Getting back to Andrew and his take on the proceedings, excerpted from his May 22, 2012 posting,

It’s important that the National Academies of Science are taking the study of science communication (and its practice) seriously.  Inviting a bunch of social scientists into the National Academies – and into a high profile colloquium like this – was a big deal.  And irrespective of the meeting’s content, it flags a commitment to work closely with researchers studying science communication and decision analysis to better ensure informed and effective communication strategies and practice.  Given the substantial interest in the colloquium – on the web as well as at the meeting itself – I hope that the National Academies build on this and continue to engage fully in this area.

Moving forward, there needs to be more engagement between science communication researchers and practitioners.  Practitioners of science communication – and the practical insight they bring – were notable by their absence (in the main) from the colloquium program.  If the conversation around empirical research is to connect with effective practice, there must be better integration of these two communities.

It’s interesting to read about the colloquia (the science communication event was one of a series events known as the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia) from the perspective of a someone who was present in real time.

Preview of new book on nanotechnology and public attitudes

For anyone who has been following the discussion about public perceptions, opinion polling, and nanotechnology, there’s a new book on the horizon: Nanotechnology: Public Perception and Risk Communication by Susanna Priest. The proposed publication date is Aug. 15, 2011. Dietram Scheufele (nanopublic blog) will be contributing a chapter of which a draft copy is currently being featured on his blog. Here’s an excerpt from Dietram’s draft,

Patterns of news coverage on nanotechnology are developing in ways that mirror issue cycles for previous technologies, including agricultural biotechnology. In particular, early coverage of nanotechnology was dominated by a general optimism about the scientific potential and economic impacts of this new technology (Dudo, Dunwoody, & Scheufele, forthcoming; Friedman & Egolf, 2005; Friedman & Egolf, 2007). This is in part related to the fact that a sizeable proportion of nanotechnology news coverage – at least in newspapers – continues to be provided by a handful of science journalists and business writers (Dudo, Choi, & Scheufele, 2011; Dudo et al., forthcoming).

Attitudes without Knowledge?

The overall positive framing of nanotechnology in news outlets is also linked to support for more research and funding among the general public (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). This connection between media coverage and support for nanotechnology, however, does not follow traditional knowledge deficit models (for an overview, see Brossard, Lewenstein, & Bonney, 2005). Instead, most research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology does not show an impact of media coverage on lay audiences’ understanding of the technology, which – according to knowledge deficit models – would produce more positive attitudes toward the technology. Instead, most recent research has found that the driving factor behind public attitudes are various forms of heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that audiences use to make sense of the technology, even in the absence of information (Scheufele, 2006).

S.NET 2011 annual meeting

S.NET is the Society for the Study of  Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies and members will be holding their 3rd annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona from the 7th to the 10th of November 2011 according to Dietram Scheufele’s Jan. 11, 2011 posting on his nanopublic blog (I can’t link directly to the posting but you can find it by scrolling down). From Dietram’s posting,

Invitation. S.NET invites contributions to the Third Annual Meeting of the The Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.NET) to be held in Tempe (Phoenix), Arizona. The workshop will engage diverse scholars, practitioners, and policy makers in the development and implications of emerging technologies.

About S.NET. S.NET is an international association that promotes intellectual exchange and critical inquiry about the advancement of nanoscience and emerging technologies in society. The aim of the association is to advance critical reflection on developments in a broad range of new and emerging fields of science and technology, including, but not limited to, nanoscale science and engineering, biotechnology, synthetic biology, cognitive science, and geoengineering.

Eligibility. S.NET includes diverse communities, viewpoints, and methodologies from across the social sciences and humanities, and welcomes contributions from scientists, engineers, and other practitioners.

To Apply. The program committee (see below) invites submissions from the full breadth of disciplines, methodologies, and epistemologies, as well as from applied, participatory, and practical approaches to studying these emerging fields and from different regional or comparative perspectives. Committed to diverse styles of communication, S.NET welcomes proposals for individual papers, posters, traditional panels, roundtable discussions, and other more innovative formats. In particular, the program committee encourages proposals for topics and formats that will encourage greater dialogue and interaction. Details of the submission process are available online at cns.ucsb.edu/snet2011. All proposals should be submitted online between 1 Feb and 1 March 2011.

Stipends. Travel stipends may be available for US graduate students, and post-doctoral scholars, and non-US participants from the Global South.

I mentioned the 2010 S.Net annual meeting in my Sept. 14, 2010 posting and briefly in my Nov. 8, 2010 posting. In both cases, you will have to scroll down to find the information as the meeting was not the main subject.

Flaws in opinion polls about science

If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to answer an opinion poll and wanting to scream in frustration because the questions are vague or cover too much ground, this is the study for you: Measuring risk/benefit perceptions of emerging technologies and their potential impact on communication of public opinion toward science published online in the journal Public Understanding of Science, Jan. 6, 2011. From the Jan. 13, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

A new study from North Carolina State University highlights a major flaw in attempting to use a single survey question to assess public opinion on science issues. Researchers found that people who say that risks posed by new science fields outweigh benefits often actually perceive more benefits than risks when asked more detailed questions.

We set out to determine whether we can accurately assess public opinion on complex science issues with one question, or if we need to break the issue down into questions on each of the issue’s constituent parts,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “We found that, to varying degrees, accuracy really depends on breaking it down into multiple questions for people.” [emphasis mine]

To assess the problematic nature of a single-question surveys, the researchers developed two surveys; one focused on nanotechnology and the other on biofuels. In each survey, respondents were asked an overarching question: do the risks associated with nanotechnology/biofuels outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same? The researchers then asked survey participants a series of questions about specific risks and benefits associated with nanotechnology or biofuels.

Precisely! Your answer to questions like these tends to be informed by the situation. In other words, you might see a benefit outweighing a risk where self-cleaning windows are concerned but not where transgenic goats (e.g. goats with spider genes) are concerned. Both of these are nanotechnology oriented, the windows being an application and the spidery goats supplying milk that can be spun for nanotechnology applications.

The article is behind a paywall but you can find out more about the study at nanopublic, Dietram Scheufele’s blog (from his Jan. 14 2011 posting,  [note: I cannot link to directly to the post so you may need to scroll down or search for it by date],

Studies tapping public perceptions of the risks and benefits surrounding new technologies have long relied on a single-item measure asking respondents a variant of the following question: “Do the risks associated with technology x outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same?” More recently, we raised concerns about this single item measure and suggested that — especially for nanotechnology — a more application-specific look at risk perceptions might be useful.

Dietram is one of the paper’s authors.

When is a nano-enabled product not nano-enabled?

Dietram Scheufele over at nanopublic has highlighted some research that David Berube (author of Nanohype—book and blog and professor at the University of North Carolina) and colleagues have published in Nanotechnology Law & Business (research article is behind a paywall). From Dietram’s July 3, 2010 blog posting (I’m unable to link to the specific post, so please scroll to or hunt for the date) about Berube’s research into the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ (PEN) Consumer Products Inventory (CPI),

The article takes a critical look at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) consumer product inventory. The inventory has been used widely as a gauge of the number and types of nano consumer products currently on the U.S. market.

… [the authors concluded]

“that the CPI is not wholly reliable, and does not have sufficient validity to justify its prominence as evidence for claims associated with the pervasiveness of nanotechnology on the U.S. and global markets. In addition, we caution researchers to approach the CPI with care and due consideration because using the CPI as a rhetorical flourish to amplify concerns about market intrusions seems unjustified.”

In other words, use the CPI with care. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read Berube’s paper but I did go to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website and looked at the criteria for inclusion in the CPI where PEN clearly states the inventory’s limitations,

Selection of products

Most products in this inventory satisfy three criteria:

1. They can be readily purchased by consumers, and

2. They are identified as nano-based by the manufacturer OR another source, and

3. The nano-based claims for the product appear reasonable.

In every instance, we have tried to identify specific products from specific producers. However, since nanotechnology has broad applications in a variety of fields, we have included a number of “generic” products that you can find in many places on the market such as computer processor chips. These are clearly labeled in the inventory. In some cases, companies offer several similar nanotechnology-based products and product lines. To reduce redundancy, we have just included a few samples in this inventory and hope that they will provide an initial baseline for understanding how nanotechnology is being commercialized.

There are probably some products in the inventory which producers allege are “nano,” but which may not be. We have made no attempt to verify manufacturer claims about the use of nanotechnology in these products, nor have we conducted any independent testing of the products. We have tried to avoid including products that clearly do not use nanotechnology, but some have undoubtedly slipped through.

Finally, some products are marked “Archive” to indicate that their availability can no longer be ascertained. When these products were added to the inventory we included live links, but since then the company may have discontinued the product, gone out of business, removed a self-identifying “nano” claim or simply changed their web address. In these instances we have attempted to locate a cached version of the product website using The Internet Archive.

I imagine that despite PEN’s clearly statements some folks have referenced it carelessly hence the concern about using it as hype from Berube and his colleagues.

The bit about manufacturers removing the ‘nano’ claim hit home since I did some research into washers that use nanosilver. A friend was disturbed by a recent article about them and I remembered that the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) had made a special designation for these types of washers. As it turns out, I got it 1/2 right. From the December 4, 2006 article by Susan Morissey in Chemical and Engineering News,

Silver—claimed to be nanoparticles—employed to kill bacteria in washing machines will now be regulated as a pesticide, EPA announced late last month. Currently, washers that generate silver ions are classified as devices and are not required to be registered with EPA.

The products at issue are Samsung washing machines that are advertised as using silver ions to kill 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria. This technology, called SilverCare, generates ions by applying current to two silver plates housed next to the machine’s tub. The ions are then directed into the tub during the wash cycle.

“EPA has determined that the Samsung silver ion-generating washing machine is subject to registration requirements under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act,” according to an EPA statement. The agency decided to change the classification of the washer because it releases silver ions into the laundry “for the purpose of killing microbial pests,” the statement explains.

For its part, Samsung has pledged to comply with the change of policy. “Samsung has and will continue to work with EPA and state regulators regarding regulation of the silver washing machine,” the company says.

Several groups concerned about the environmental impact of nanoparticles of silver had asked EPA to reevaluate the way products containing such materials are regulated. For example, environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted in a letter to EPA that there are currently more than 40 products on the market in addition to Samsung’s washing machine that have made or implied claims of using nanoparticles of silver to kill bacteria.

NRDC praised EPA for taking what it called a “step in the right direction” by reclassifying nanosilver generated in a washer as a pesticide. The group also said this revised policy should lead to EPA reassessing other products that use nanoparticles of silver for their biocidal qualities.

A pesticide is not exactly a special designation but it certainly is unique as applied to clothes washers. The EPA announcement was made around the US Thanksgiving period (late November) according to a December 6, 2006 article by Scott E. Rickert in Industry Week. From Rickert’s article,

First, let’s backtrack and get the facts behind the headline. The trigger for the EPA decision was a Samsung washing machine. The “SilverWash” contains silver nanoparticles and claims that it helps to kill bacteria in clothes by releasing silver ions into the water during the wash.

Various U.S water authorities became concerned that discharged nanosilver might accumulate in the water system, particularly in wastewater treatment plants where beneficial bacteria are used to purify water of its toxins. This opinion means that nanosilver could be viewed as an environmental pesticide, requiring the product to be registered and tested under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. In the words of EPA spokesperson Jennifer Wood, “The release of silver ions in the washing machines is a pesticide, because it is a substance released into the laundry for the purpose of killing pests.”

So what does this really mean to nano-industry? Specifically, we’re not sure yet. It will take several months for the final rules to be detailed in the Federal Register. But some of the early responses have me scratching my head.

One company has removed any reference to nanosilver from their marketing information for antimicrobial devices. Apparently, in the short run, that excludes them from any ruling. As Jim Jones, director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, said, “Unless you’re making a claim to kill a pest, you’re not a pesticide.”

This is not a simple ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ situation. Defining nanotechnology, nanoparticles, nanomaterials, etc. is a work in progress which makes attempts to regulate products and production in this area an even earlier work in progress. This situation is not confined to the US or to Canada. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be confined to any one country, which makes the situation applicable globally.

There is work being done and changes instituted, for example, the EPA has announced (from the PEN website),

At an April 29 presentation to the Pesticide Programs Dialogue Committee in Washington, D.C. EPA’s William Jordan announced a new working definition of nanomaterials as “an ingredient that contains particles that have been intentionally produced to have at least one dimension that measures between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers.” In addition EPA is preparing a Federal Register Announcement due out in June which announces a new interpretation of FIFRA/regulations and proposes a new policy stating that the presence of a nanoscale material in a pesticide product is reportable under FIFRA section 6(a)(2) and applies to already registered products as well as products pending registration.

As well, statements from the NanoBusiness Alliance suggest (in a previous posting on this blog) that there is some support within the business community for thoughtful regulation. As to what thoughtful means in this context, I think that’s something we, as a a society, need to work out.