Had a conversation w/ a really smart scholarly friend who shares my basic orientation toward science communication & who is doing cool things to advance it. For his benefit, after we were done I reduced my thoughts to a small annotated outline. Figured I might as well put the memo up on the blog. It's the internet equivalent, I suppose, of a guy on a desert island putting a message in a bottle & tossing it into the ocean--the nice thing being that there are *so many* other islands out there on the net that the hope the bottle will end up washing onto the shore of someone who finds its contents useful is not nearly so farfetched or desperate!
0. Polarization does not stem from a deficit in the public's comprehension of
science (or the exploitation of any such deficit by self-interested actors)
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).
1. On how to make sense of cultural cognition, science comprehension, and cultural
The problem isn’t the mode of comprehending science; it’s the contamination of the “science communication environment” in which cultural cognition (or like mechanisms) can be expected to & usually do reliably lead diverse, ordinary people to converge on best science. The contamination consists in the attachment of antagonistic cultural meanings to facts that admit of scientific investigation.
2. On what to do
a. Protect science communication environment: We need to perfect the knowledge we have for forecasting potential contamination—on, say, novel issues like nanotechnology, synbio, or GMOs—and implement procedures (say, govt review of “science communication impact” of govt-funded science research & of regulatory decisionmaking) to use that knowledge to preempt such contamination.
b. Decontaminate already polluted environments: Hard to do but not impossible. Involves figuring out how through conscious reorientation of meaning cues—identity of advocates, narrative frames for conveying info, etc.—so that toxic associations get broken down.
c. Select policy/engagement locations in manner that exploits relative quality of scicom environments. The cues that determine what issues mean are highly sensitive to context, including what the policy question is, who is involved in the discussion, & where it is occurring. If one context is bad, then see if you can find another.
E.g., climate: The national-level “mitigation” discussion is highly polluted; the local, adaptation focused one is not.
3. How to do it: scientifically
We have knowledge on these dynamics. So just guessing what will work to promote constructive, nonpolarized public engagement with scientific information—without looking at & trying to make informed conjectures based on that knowledge—is a huge mistake (an ironic one, too, since it is an utterly unscientific way to do things).
An even bigger mistake is to do scicom w/o collecting information. Disciplined observation & measurement can be used to calibrate & improve knowledge-informed strategies as a communication effort (say, an attempt to build support for sensible use of climate science in an adaptation setting) unfolds. But just as important, the collection of information generated by these means is critical to extending practical knowledge of how to do effective communication in field settings. What’s learned every time people engage in scientifically informed science communication is more information that can be used to help improve the conducting of such activity in the future.
Thus, people who engage in policy-supportive science communication efforts w/o systematic information collection protocols – including ones that test effectiveness of their methods in promoting open-minded enagement—are casually dissipating & wasting a knowledge resource of tremendous value. They are in fact unwittingly aiding & abetting entropy--an act of treason in the Liberal Republic of Science!