Is the controversy over climate change a "science communication problem?" Jon Miller's views & mine too (postcard from NAS session on "science literacy & public attitudes toward science")
Gave presentation yesterday before the National Academy of Sciences Committee that is examining the relationship between "public science literacy" & "public attitudes toward science.' It's really great that NAS is looking at these questions & they've assembled a real '27 Yankees quality lineup of experts to do it.
Really cool thing was that Jon Miller spoke before me & gave a masterful account of the rationale and historical development of the "civic science literacy" philosophy that has animated the NSF Indicators battery.
There was zero disagreement among the presenters-- me & Miller, plus Philip Kitcher, who advanced an inspiring Dewian conception of science literacy -- that the public controversy over climate science is not grounded in a deficit in public science comprehension.
It's true that the public doesn't know very much (to put it mildly) about the rudiments of climate science. But that's true of those on both sides, and true too in all the myriad areas in which there isn't any controversy over important forms of decision-relevant science in which there is no controversy and in which the vast majority of ordinary citizens nevertheless recognize and make effective use of the best available evidence.
I think I agree but would put matters differently.
Miller was arguing that the source of enduring conflict is not a result of the failure of scientists or anyone else to communicate the underlying information clearly but a result of the success of political actors in attaching identity-defining meanings to competing positions, thereby creating social & psychological dynamics that predictably motivate ordinary citizens to fit their beliefs to those that predominate within their political groups.
That's the right explanation, I'd say, but for me this state of affairs is still a science communication problem. Indeed, the entanglement of facts that admit of scientific inquiry & antagonistic social meanings --ones that turn positions on them into badges of group membership & identity-- is the "science communication problem" for liberal democratic societies. Those meanings, I've argued, are a form of "science communication environment pollution," the effective avoidance and remediation of which is one of the central objects of the "science of science communication."
I think the only thing at stake in this "disagreement" is how broadly to conceive of "science communication." Miller, understandably, was using the term to describe a discrete form of transaction in which a speaker imparts information about science to a message recipient; I have in mind the less familiar notion of "science communication" as the sum total of processes, many of which involve the tract orienting influence of social norms, that serve to align individual decisionmaking with the best available evidence, the volume of which exceeds the capacity of ordinary individuals to even articulate much less deeply comprehend.
But that doesn't mean it exceeds their capacity to use that evidence, & in a rational way by effectively exercising appropriately calibrated faculties of recognition that help them to discern who knows what about what. It's that capacity that is disrupted, degraded, rendered unreliable, by the science-communication environment pollution of antagonistic social meanings.
I doubt Miller would disagree with this. But I wish we'd had even more time so that I could have put the matter to him this way to see what he'd say! Kitcher too, since in fact the relationship of public science comprehension to democracy is the focus of much of his writing.
Maybe I can entice one or the other or both into doing a guest blog, although in fact the 14 billion member audience for this blog might be slightly smaller than the ones they are used to addressing on a daily basis.