by Judith Curry
Here is the punchline of a new paper by Besley and Nisbet:
Most scientists in the US and UK blame public ignorance of science for flawed policy preferences and political choices. They tend to be critical of media coverage, yet rate favorably their own experience with the media. Scientists say policy-makers and journalists are the most important groups to engage and view the public as having secondary importance in political decision-making. Among scientists, perceptions of science-related policy debates are likely to be influenced by ideology and like-minded information sources such as blogs.
How scientists view the public, the media and the political process
John C. Besley and Matthew Nisbet
Abstract. We review past studies on how scientists view the public, the goals of communication, the performance and impacts of the media, and the role of the public in policy decision-making. We add to these past findings by analyzing two recent large-scale surveys of scientists in the UK and US. These analyses show that scientists believe the public is uninformed about science and therefore prone to errors in judgment and policy preferences. Scientists are critical of media coverage generally, yet they also tend to rate favorably their own experience dealing with journalists, believing that such interactions are important both for promoting science literacy and for career advancement. Scientists believe strongly that they should have a role in public debates and view policy-makers as the most important group with which to engage. Few scientists view their role as an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making through formats such as deliberative meetings, and do not believe there are personal benefits for investing in these activities. Implications for future research are discussed, in particular the need to examine how ideology and selective information sources shape scientists’ views.
Public Understanding of Science published online 30 August 2011 DOI: 10.1177/0963662511418743 [link]
The paper is discussed online at Matthew Nisbet’s blog.
Motivation for the study:
As I described in a previous paper with Dietram Scheufele, it is increasingly important to understand how scientists form judgments about the public, the communication process, media coverage, and political decision-making. With strong levels of societal trust and admiration, scientists remain among the leading authorities called upon in policy debates to give media interviews, testify before political bodies or address public forums. In addition, as decision-makers at their organizations, many scientists are responsible for setting strategy, allocating resources and establishing communication priorities. Scientists also contribute to the framing of debates over topics such as climate change and stem cell research through blogging, political activism and other forms of public communication, shaping societal interpretations about why an issue might be a problem, who or what is to blame and what should be done.
How scientists view the public:
Almost universally, studies find that scientists believe the public is inadequately informed about science topics, including food risks, genetic modification, chemicals, and even aquaculture. Further, scientists believe that, except for a small minority, the public is uninterested in becoming more knowledgeable.
The consequence, and cause, of the public’s limited scientific sophistication has also been the subject of speculation by scientists. Several studies find that scientists view the public as non-rational and unsystematic in their thinking such that they rely on anecdotes and then overreact to minor risks. Others have found that scientists see the public as emotional, fear prone, overly focused on the sensational, self-interested and stubborn in the face of new evidence. Because of these perceived limits, scientists argue that scientific information needs to be simple, carefully worded, visual and entertaining.
Together, these findings reflect a traditional “deficit model” of science communication that assumes that scientific illiteracy is at the root of opposition to new technologies, environmental action and adequate science funding.
The pervasiveness of this mental model makes it very difficult to break away from the influence of these assumptions in popular debate and in strategic planning by scientists and their organizations. Yet alternative models do exist, as summarized under the column specific to the “public engagement” model. (For more discussion, see also this article.)
How scientists view the media:
Scientists do not exclusively blame the public for its failings; they also blame the news media. The public is misguided, according to this argument, because it is inordinately swayed by biased or sensational news coverage. Studies find that such coverage is often critiqued by scientists for emphasizing the views of interest groups, industry and other vocal minorities rather than those of scientists and other experts perceived as impartial and authoritative. Journalists’ lack of specialist training is also seen as the cause of poor scientific coverage. Studies do, however, find that some scientists appear to recognize that different types of journalists can produce different types of content, that scientists sometimes lack the ability to communicate effectively to reporters, and that science can be difficult to adequately report.
The 2001 Mori/Wellcome Trust data show that a greater percentage of scientists believe the public trusts television documentaries (67%), television news (68%) and national newspaper journalists (49%) more than university scientists (39%). Scientists further believe that media coverage has influenced public opinion on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), genetically modified foods (GMOs) and human genetics, making the public more confused (59%, 58% and 43%, respectively) and more wary (59%, 69% and 68%, respectively).
Nevertheless, when asked about effective methods for communicating with the public about social and ethical implications of research, 48% said that being on television or the radio was the “most effective” means of communication. Another 26% said talking to television or radio journalists, and a further 26% said talking to national newspapers was the most effective communication method. Some 30% said writing for the national press themselves was the most effective method while smaller percentages mentioned writing for the popular science press (19%) or talking to local newspaper reporters.
The survey also asked about 16 motives for engaging with the media with more than 9 out of 10 respondents indicating the goal of “achieving a more positive attitude towards research” and more than 9 out of 10 scientists indicating the goal of “a better educated public.” In terms of factors weighing against interaction, 9 out of 10 respondents indicated the “risk of incorrect quotation” and 8 out of 10 cited the “unpredictability of journalists.”
How scientists’ view the public’s role in the political process:
Research on scientists’ views of the public relative to political decision-making has focused on two main themes: (1) the appropriate role of the public and (2) how the public should be engaged in public decision-making.
Scientists seem to walk a difficult line both in recognizing the right of citizens to play a role in decision-making while having reservations about the public’s capacity to do so. One study spoke of a scientist’s need to have the public provide “legitimacy and validation.” This position appeared to be operationalized as a duty to empower citizens to make good decisions. However, a good decision was understood as one that was consistent with scientists’ point of view, and empowerment was understood as education. In the end, these studies describe scientists as feeling frustrated when they believe their views receive inadequate attention.
Previous studies suggest that scientists tend to favor one-way communication with the public via the media, viewing engagement as chiefly about dissemination rather than two-way dialogue and active public participation in decisions. One study, for example, notes many scientists view it as their responsibility to inform the public via the media about the benefits of nanotechnology because of the public money that goes towards research. This finding is consistent with those from the cross-national survey of researchers who reported that achieving “a more positive attitude towards research” and a “better educated public” as chief motivations for engaging with journalists.
Consistent with deficit model assumptions, in previous studies, scientists have described the primary reasons for engaging the public in terms of the need to increase citizen knowledge or allay unfounded fears. Several studies also emphasize that scientists are willing to engage directly with citizens but that such engagement is usually still framed in terms of providing information. The key difficulty may be that scientists often believe public debates should turn on logic and cost-benefit-analysis accounting whereas the public wants consideration of factors such as fairness, ethics and accountability.
A small quantitative study showed that scientists’ intention to engage with the public is predicted by attitudes about the process or activity (e.g., would it be enjoyable), social norm perceptions about what other scientists in the peer group are doing, and feelings of efficacy based on the belief that one has the skill and tools necessary to succeed.
From the discussion and conclusions:
Past studies provide clear evidence that scientists believe the public knows little about a range of scientific issues and that they see this knowledge deficit as shaping risk perceptions, policy preferences and decisions. Scientists further tend to blame media coverage for many of the public’s failings. Scientists’ negative views about the media, however, are matched by a positive impression of their own interactions and a belief that the media remain an effective means of public communication.
When it comes to policy debates, scientists recognize that they have a role to play in supporting public debate but emphasize a need to educate the public so that non-experts will make policy choices in line with the preferences of scientists. It also appears that scientists believe direct engagement with policy-makers is the most effective route for affecting policy outcomes. Only a small proportion of scientists appear to view their role as an enabler of public participation through formats such as deliberative meetings, and see few personal benefits for such engagement.
“Third person effect” research may also prove useful to understanding the perceptions of scientists. This widely used theory suggests that a member of one social group will perceive media coverage (or a message) as not affecting them but will think the media coverage has influenced those socially distant from their group. It seems particularly relevant to scientists who, as we have reviewed, tend to view the wider public as mostly ill-informed about science if not often lacking competence. Such views seem likely to magnify concerns about slanted and biased media coverage that may lead to misplaced communication strategy on the part of scientists and their organizations.
JC’s comments: I find this article to be very insightful, and it seems to explain in my mind some of the behaviours revealed by the Climategate emails. The “deficit model” results in scientists dumbing down the evidence and the arguments, along with a perceived need for “consensus.” Any negative media coverage is over interpreted, motivating gatekeeping and consensus enforcement, and general “misplaced communication strategy”. The public is more interested in fairness, ethics and accountability than in the nuances of a scientific argument or the existence of a consensus. Then the scientists are frustrated when their views receive inadequate attention.
I am a strong proponent of the “public engagement” approach, as a strategy for educating the public, building trust and accountability with public, and discussing the science and policy options from a range of perspectives. I hope that Nisbet et al. will do a follow on article on “How scientists view the blogosphere,” which I regard as a key element in public engagement.