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Thursday
Dec082011

Polluting the Science Communication Environment

I've been invited by the University of Minnesota political science department to make a presentation on the "political psychology of misinformation." Am mulling over what to say (have till 2:00 pm tomorrow, so no rush) & was thinking something along the lines of

  1. misinformation isn't really much of a problem unless antagonistic cultural meanings have become attached to an empirical claim about some fact that admits of scientific investigation;
  2. when such meanings have taken root, accurate information won't by itself do much good; and
  3. therefore the kind of misinformation to worry about is public advocacy that needlessly ties policy-relevant factual issues to antagonistic cultural meanings. 

Climate change is the obvious example of 3: hierarchical-individualist activists warn that concerns over it are a smoke screen to conceal a plot to overthrow capitalism,  while egalitarian-communitarian ones profer climate change as evidence of the destructiveness of capitalist greed that necessitates severe restrictions on technology & markets. The positions are reciprocal -- by supplying vivid examples of exactly the the mindset the other fears, each one actually advances the other's cause at the same time that it advances its own.

But nanotechnology risk concern furnishes an even nicer example, I think. It is, of course, sensible to investigate whether nanotechnology is hazardous, but at this point at least there's no meaningful scientific evidence that it is. Yet that hasn't stopped some advocacy groups from noisly clanging the alarm bells. Indeed, one sponsored a contest for the "best nano-free zone" symbol, with the winner to emblazoned on t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. The contest drew some 482 entrants.

Eighty Percent of the public hasn't even heard of nanotechnology yet. This is a great way to make sure that their first exposure connects nanotchnolgoy up with politicized issues like climate change and nuclear power. This strategy for creating cultural polarization, CCP found in an experimental study, has an excellent chance to succeed.  Good to think ahead, too, since eventually climate change, like nuclear, might lose its power to divide -- and then who would need the "public interest" groups dedicated to protecting us from trying to the prospect that our cultural enemies will erect their worldview into a political orthodoxy?!

This might not be "misinformation" in the sense that the symposium sponsors have in mind -- but it is the sort of behavior that makes the public receptive to misinformation and impervious to sound science.  It is a toxin, really, in the communication environment that democracies depend on for reliable transmission of scientific knowledge to their citizens.

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Reader Comments (3)

Couldn't agree more. I tried to tell nano researchers that I was seeing the exact same anti-GMO people do the same exact strategies on this, and recommended they get out in front of it.

And then the nano-tech researcher bombings* happened. I think it's already too late.

*There was one actual bombing in Mexico, and a plot in Switzerland that went to trial.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Yep--too late: Marion Nestle pulled the fear factor, without any discussion of the possible benefits:

Is Nanotechnology the New GMO?

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Hi, Mary. Well, that's an eye-catching headline but as the article reflects, "Is Nano the next ..." is already in circulation. My prediction: no. People have been fretting (mainly fretting; the "is Nano the next ..." is a common topic of conversation among people who do scholarly research or commercial R&D) like this for yrs, and not only has public anxiety not kicked in but public awareness is still next to nil. Maybe the UK is a more fertile site for planting the seed of anxiety but it actually sounds from the story as if the anxiety here was mainly that of experts that the benefit side of the story isn't being told aggressively enough by industry . Frankly, I don't see the point of publicity campaigns on benefits either. Citizens have enough to focus their attention on w/o being bombarded with speculative & abstract discussions of "risks & benefits" of emerging technologies. Which isn't to say that risk & science communicators shouldn't be studying & monitoring & anticipating reactions; my view -- that it's not necessary or constructive to mount public education campaigns or assemble "town hall" meetings on nanotechnology all over the countryside --reflects precisely the conclusion I've drawn from the informative work that scholars have been doing on "emerging" (or nonemerging) public perceptions of nanotechnology.

But be sure to let me know if & when events prove me wrong!

--dmk

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdmk

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