Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Scientists: Don't 'Educate' the Public; Collaborate!

Much of our work involves communicating about highly technical subjects – science, engineering, technology, energy – to nontechnical audiences. So we routinely work with scientists and engineers. And many of them often seem frustrated that “they” – the public, the media, government officials – just don’t get it, whatever the subject is, because “they” don’t understand the scientific basis and the elegant logic behind it.

Now the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is turning the table. Yes, the public usually doesn’t get the science; but the scientists don’t get the public. In an important new report issued this week, “Do Scientists Understand the Public,” the academy argues that the technical community needs to do a better job of understanding the values and culture of the society they live in. It needs to factor public opinion of new technologies into the development process through collaboration, rather than just trying to “educate” the public to accept a new technology suddenly sprung on them.

The report says that “resistance is growing” to major scientific initiatives, from radioactive waste management and geoengineering to new energy sources and genetic engineering. To some scientists, the reason is that the public – in the words of DNA pioneer James Watson – is made up of “kooks” and “incompetents.” To the academy, though, another reason is the technical community’s belief that basic facts will win public support. As one scientist described this view: “Our job is simply to tell people – and if they don’t understand, then our job is to tell them a bit louder. That tends not to work.”

In fact, the report calls for better understanding of the public’s value system and attitudes toward risk, which are very different from the technical community’s. This means bringing the public into the process much earlier, paying more attention to social scientists and public opinion experts, and training more scientists in the important skill – now derided by much of the technical community – of communicating effectively to nontechnical audiences.

The future of new technologies now emerging – from smart meters and the electric car to geoengineering and wind power – may depend on how the technical community responds to the challenge this report lays out. Let’s hope we don’t hear of other scientists asking a colleague before a public presentation, as this report quotes, “You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?”

-Potomac Communications Group

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