Monday, February 20, 2006

A quick summary of the AAAs panel sunday on "Engaging the Public on Controversial Science."

THE MYTH OF THE "SCIENTIFIC CITIZEN." Most surveys on nanotech show, however, vast majority of the public is largely unengaged and uninformed. This is in part due to the minimal amount of media coverage that the issue has received so far. And most of that coverage has been focused on the economic benefits and scientific merits of the new technology. But is also a function of a second phenomenon that my presentation at AAAS focused on heavily and that I outlined before in pieces in SmallTimes and the Journal of Nanoparticle Reseach--the idea of "Low Information Rationality."

LOW INFORMATION RATIONALITY. The idea of “Low Information Rationality” is based on the idea that human beings are cognitive misers and minimize the economic costs of making decisions. And that includes nanotechnology. Low information rationality also implies that this behavior--while normatively questionable--makes perfect sense for citizens who have to deal with thousands of pieces of new information every day and need to establish patterns of doing so quickly and efficiently.

PREDISPOSITIONAL LENSES. One tool that audiences use to sift through all the information they encounter about new technologies, for instance, are what I call "predispositional lenses." These can be religious beliefs, moral values, trust in scientists, prior knowledge, or any other interpretive schema that people use to make sense of information.

The fact that people use these predispositional schema as interpretive tools also means, however, that the same piece of information may be interpreted very differently by different people. And as a result, different messages about scientific discoveries may be interpreted very differently by different cross-sections of the audience, depending on their religious beliefs, prior knowledge, and other predispositional factors.

FRAMES CAN PLAY TO THESE PRE-EXISTING PREDISPOSITIONAL LENSES. Interest groups and other players in the policy arena have long played to these perceptual lenses by framing messages in certain ways and activating certain interpretive schema. The "gun safety" frame that replaced the "gun control" frame in all public communication out of the Clinton White House after 1996 is a good example of a frame that tried to shift people's perceptual lens from a constitutionally-guaranteed right and a Second Amendment issue to an issue focused on the dangers of innocent children being killed in gun-related accidents.

LESSONS. The lessons are simple. Science communication and education needs to address different audiences and abandon the idea of a “scientific citizen” completely. Again, this does not mean that information is not important. But we know from decades of research in political communication that information can be presented in ways that fundamentally changes the interpretation among audiences. And more importantly, citizens will always use their own perceptual lenses to interpret information, even if it is presented in the most neutral way possible, based on their pre-existing values, beliefs, thoughts, and other predispositional lenses.

As a result, understanding these results and using them for effective public communication about nanotechnology and other new technologies is not an option; it is a necessity. Interest groups. corporate communicators and other players in the policy arena have long used these strategies for successfully communicating with a miserly public that will often form opinions based on very limited amount of information if we like it or not.

Just to preempt one potential criticism, my recommendation is not to engage in propagandistic attempts in order to sway opinions one way or the other. Quite the contrary. My point is that if we as scientists want to have our views heard in public debate, we need to use the communication tools that are available and appropriate for different audiences. And we need to explore the processes further that explain how these tools work.


UPDATE:

More recommendations for scientists from the AAAS panel on my colleague Matthew Nisbet's blog Framing Science:

"GOING ON THE OFFENSIVE IS GOOD: On these short term political conflicts that involve a battle between mainstream science and the increasing influence of think tank science, scientists and journalists should go on the offensive, critically evaluating ideas or policies that don't square with scientific consensus, or are just plain wrong. But in criticizing ideas, getting the "facts" out there and "educating people" will not move the public. Responses have to be actively and strategically framed to fit the type of media outlet and the intended audience."

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