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Thursday
May172012

The science of protecting the science communication environment

Am giving a talk on Tuesday at the NAS's Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication. Was asked to submit an "exeuctive summary" for the benefit of commenters. This is it: 

The Science of Science Communication and Protecting the Science Communication Environment

Promoting public comprehension of science is only one aim of the science of science communication and is likely not the most important one for the well-being of a democratic society. Ordinary citizens form quadrillions of correct beliefs on matters that turn on complicated scientific principles they cannot even identify much less understand. The reason they fail to converge on beliefs consistent with scientific evidence on certain other consequential matters—from climate change to genetically modified foods to compusory adolescent HPV vaccination—is not the failure of scientists or science communicators to speak clearly or the inability of ordinary citizens to understand what they are saying. Rather, the source of such conflict is the proliferation of antagonistic cultural meanings. When they become attached to particular facts that admit of scientific investigation, these meanings are a kind of pollution of the science communication environment that disables the faculties ordinary citizens use to reliably absorb collective knowledge from their everyday interactions. The quality of the science communication environment is thus just as critical for enlightened self-government as the quality of the natural environment is for the physical health and well-being of a society’s members. Understanding how this science communication environment works, fashioning procedures to prevent it from becoming contaminated with antagonistic meanings, and formulating effective interventions to detoxify it when protective strategies fail—those are the most critical functions science communication can perform in a democratic society.

In my remarks, I will elaborate on this conception of the science of science communication. I will likely illustrate my remarks with reference to findings on formation of HPV-vaccine risk perceptions, culturally biased assimilation of evidence of scientific consensus, the polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions, and experimental forecasting of emerging-technology risk perceptions.  I’ll also describe the necessity of public provisioning to assure the quality of the science communication environment, which like the quality of the physical environment is a collective good that is unlikely to be secured by spontaneous private ordering.

If any of the other panelists would like to form a more vivid impression of my remarks, they might consider taking a look at:

1. Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010); and

2. Kahan, D.M., Wittlin, M., Peters, E., Slovic, P., Ouellette L.L., Braman, D., Mandel, G. The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change. CCP Working Paper No. 89 (June 24, 2011).

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Reader Comments (3)

Tape the talk, please.

Best, IMO, is to give the public an epistemological immune system - nobody's taught them how best to go about forming an opinion about a field they don't know well. We need to instill understanding that scientific consensus is the best heuristic, and that those asserting that a consensus doesn't exist, or is corrupted, or is meaningliess, or is otherwise than it is, must back the claim up with evidence to be taken seriously.

(But what about fields in which there is no IPCC and no Oreskes literature survey - how then is a citizen to know what the consensus is?)
Also, citizens need an understanding of risk, of the implications of uncertainty, & of prioritizing.

Instigating a voluntary credential for communicators would be good; particularly if it encompasses epistemology and risk analysis. We need to ask "what is [civic] science literacy?" and offer a credential to communicators who have it.

And maybe have another credential, offered to those communicators whose audience has, empirically, developed such literacy? ( Isn't testing the students the best way to assess a teacher's effectiveness?)

> becoming a form of centralized manipulation

Yes, a problem. Have other countries dealt with it?

May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Haynes

AH: These are excellent points. The best thing about this event is the prospect that it will promote reflection on & discussion of means of integrating the science of science communication with the practice and production of science.

-dmk38

May 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

These are such important questions...if we could answer both of them -- and I'm sure the answers would be equally applicable to communication of non-scientific policy-relevant information -- we'd go a long way toward advancing the democratic ideal.

I like AH's idea of a credential for communicators. I think I've mentioned before that I think there should be a way either for communicators to commit publicly to avoiding polarization in their communication, or for interested people to rate communicators on how productively they communicate scientific information. If scientists have an interest in effective communication -- and I think they do -- they could choose whom to give interviews/scoops to based on this public credential. This scheme would fit into the larger strategy of making it less advantageous for communicators to contaminate the environment. While targeting consumption -- making people not want to read/view/listen to polarizing communication -- would be ideal, I think targeting production would be more practical.

On 2, I think the best way to do this is for the centralized project not to target individual topics or communicators but rather to seek the consistent application of polarization avoidant techniques on all sides of all questions. Encouraging climate change deniers to communicate effectively to communitarians is preferable to both centralized manipulation of opinion and the status quo, in my opinion.

May 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterm

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