Do scientists understand the public?

June 29, 2010, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Scientific advances often provoke deep concern on the part of the public, especially when these advances challenge strongly held political or moral perspectives.

An American Academy of Arts and Sciences' project on Improving the Scientific Community's Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology 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, , 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. Several common themes emerged:

  • Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide. 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.
  • Scientific issues require an "anticipatory approach." A diverse group of stakeholders — research scientists, , public engagement experts, and skilled communicators — should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.
  • Communications solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal ). In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. For emerging technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of .
In Do Scientists Understand the Public?, a new paper based on the Academy study, science journalist Chris Mooney reviews the workshop findings and recommendations. The monograph is available online at http://www.amacad.org/publications/scientistsUnderstand.aspx.

According to Mooney, Scientists and the public often have "very different perceptions of risk, and very different ways of bestowing their trust and judging the credibility of information sources."

"Perhaps scientists are misunderstanding the …due to their own quirks, assumptions, and patterns of behavior," says Mooney. Laypeople, meanwhile, tend to "strain their responses to scientific controversies through their ethical or value systems, as well as through their political or ideological outlooks."

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22 comments

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RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 29, 2010
Public ~ the badlands beyond the periphery of enlightened empiricism?
manojendu
4 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2010
I think the summary is quite balanced and correct.
Javinator
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2010
That's jaw droppingly ignorant marjon. Nice use of apostrophes though.

'Scientists' are just people who study/work in science. Almost all scientists except for maybe some crazy hermits live and work among the 'public'. Believe it or not, not all 'scientists' are out to get you. Your level of paranoia is actually disturbing.

Don't blame not understanding a math text on the fact that the author is trying to seem smarter than everyone. To think that there are people such as yourself that actually live with these kinds of unfounded assumptions and beliefs about what people are thinking and what their motives are is depressing.
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2010
Results of scientific research is hard to communicate to the public. Results nowadays don't come in easy to swallow chunks like "do X and the result is Y - which is good for you". If it were that simple then everyone could be a scientist.

Then there is this aspect: What is in it for the scientist to dumb down his findings so that others THINK they can understand them? You only have to look at sites like this to see what happens: as soon as you dumb it down people will misunderstand/misinterpret.

If you COULD dumb it down then the result would already be simpler than it is.

Javinator: People fear what they don't understand. This is an age-old intinct that has served our species well, even though it is outdated today. marjon is a prime example.
Javinator
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2010
Maybe that's the difference between the 'public' and 'scientists'.

One fears what it does not understand whereas the other tries to understand it.
antialias
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2010
I think it is just that everyone is afraid of people smarter than themselves. 'The public' are usually greedy little buggers who are out to short-change anyone they meet. To them life is all about grabbing every tiny advantage over others (be it with status symbols or whatnot). They can't understand that scientist aren't like that. If we were like that we would go work at different jobs.

I could earn twice as much as I currently do in the industry, easily. If I were to think like one of 'the public' I would immediately switch over.
They're stuck in jobs they hate and think scientists must therefore be like that, too - always on the lookout for something that alleviates that hatred for the 8 hours a day they are stuck in a dead-end job. Not so.

They just can't conceive that someone would do their job for the fun of it and forego large money offerings with a smile.
Jigga
1 / 5 (5) Jun 30, 2010
if you can't explain your research to a sixth grader, you don't understand it yourself
It's actually true. Concepts of contemporary physics could be understood quite easily - the question is, if such understanding is truly in the interest of scientific community. The scientists are often play a role of shamans of medieval era, who cover their uncertainty by artificial cloud of magic. They're avoiding the feedback of layman public.

After all, this is why most of my attempts to explain it easier were deleted fast from most of public forums.
Jigga
1 / 5 (6) Jun 30, 2010
Everyone who is still believing in the innocence of mainstream physics should read the excerpt of the president of APS Prof. Dr. Robert Wilson, which appeared in Physics Today in 1984:

"Just suppose.. that some smart aleck came up with a simple self-evident, closed theory of everything. I---and so many others---have had a perfectly wonderful life pursuing the will-o'-the-wisp of unification. I have dreamed of my children, their children and their children's children all having this same beautiful experience.

All that would end.

APS membership would drop precipitously. Fellow members, could we afford this catastrophe? We must prepare a crisis-management plan for this eventuality, however remote. First we must voice a hearty denial. Then we should ostracize the culprit and hold up for years any publication by the use of our well-practiced referees. Just to be safe, we should put the paper on our Index---I mean in our index--- where it can be lost for centuries..."
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2010
Just suppose.. that some smart aleck came up with a simple self-evident, closed theory of everything.


I think the good professor hasn't understood that a ToE is impossible. A map is not the territory. All theories are abstractions and therefore must contain inaccuracies (because an abstraction cannot yield a 1:1 transformation for ALL properties of the original).

From this follows that you can ALWAYS find a better theory (i.e. one that is more precise).
This may come at a cost of vastly increased complexity of the theory so there may be a simplicity optimum if you are going for a certain amount of accuracy.

But as long as more accuracy is the holy grail a ToE cannot be forthcoming.

Finally, even if a ToE could to be presented it would find its way into technical use at some point. You can't ignore stuff that works - even if you want to.

Note that a ToE is not the equivalent of a unification theory of gravity and Relativity. That would just be a subset of a ToE.
Jigga
1 / 5 (6) Jun 30, 2010
Actually I do believe, the ToE is possible (I'm promoting some approach for it, too) - but the uncertainty principle cannot be avoided so easily: the more general concept we develop, the far it will be from practical applications of it. From the same reason we aren't using quantum electrodynamics for estimation of boiling point of water-spirit mixtures - we are simply using a much more accessible approximations based on classical thermodynamics, etc..

So I actually don't think, theorists developing more particular & specialized approximations would lose their jobs - on the contrary - the number of these approximations will increase at a geometric rate. The Mr. Wilson's fear of job losses is definitely unsubstantiated one - his scandalous memo presented in peer-reviewed press rather reveals the mafia-like approach of top physics proponents.
Starblade_Enkai
5 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2010
Uh, how do you mean science is empiricism? Empiricism is a philosophical position that has nothing to do with science. Science requires humans to consciously and volitionally integrate the information from their senses, not merely to observe it passively.
Zarky
1 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2010
>>> science journalist >>>

LOL, scientists and lay talk different languages.. there can be no bridging the divide, simply NO communication at all.

A science journalist is simply lay.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2010
The public doesn't understand the public. How could scientists do so?
Jigga
1 / 5 (4) Jul 07, 2010
Taylor & Francis has been testing the CrossCheck service for 6 months on submissions to three of its science journals. In one, 21 of 216 submissions, or almost 10%, had to be rejected because they contained plagiarism; in the second journal, that rate was 6%; and in the third, 13 of 56 of articles (23%) were rejected after testing, according to Rachael Lammey, a publishing manager at Taylor & Francis's offices in Abingdon, UK.

http://www.nature...67a.html
Jigga
1 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2010
If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening

http://www.washin...158.html
Jigga
1 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2010
The identity of the modern scientist

http://seedmagazi...ientist/
Jigga
1 / 5 (4) Jul 28, 2010
Statistical evidence, that science turns authoritarian
http://www.americ...ritarian
http://www.guardi...-science

Why experts are usually wrong? Because they're trained to think in biased, i.e. specialized way.
http://www.nypost...QJHmT5QO

Is "publish or perish" biasing science toward gradualism?
http://arstechnic...ence.ars

The corruption of science?
http://news.bbc.c...0481.stm

We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research The main cause: the growth in the number of researchers.
http://chronicle....f/65890/

Scientists, you are fallible. Get off the pedestal and join the common herd
http://www.guardi...question
Jigga
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 28, 2010
Aren't scientists supposed to be smarter than the public?

Philip Tetlock: Any individual expert is likely to be wrong.

http://www.boston...?mode=PF

http://www.nypost...QJHmT5QO

The concentration of egocentric asocials is higher in scientific society due the positive correlation of Asperger's syndrome or bipolar disorder and IQ..

http://www.zeenew...239.html
Jigga
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 28, 2010
Scientists advocate socialism to 'stop AGW' regardless of its negative consequence.

If we will not switch to alternative energy sources soon, we'll face global nuclear war. Me, you, everybody. It's as simple, as it is.
Skeptic_Heretic
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2010
DPRK has nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and no oil. How did they do that?
They bought them, they did not build them.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2010
DPRK sells their missiles.
After they bought them from the russians and copied the design. Seriously marjon, you need a big reality wake up call.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2010
The Russians stole the design from the Germans.
As did the US and the rest of the allies.

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