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Forecasting risk perceptions—are we there yet? (Lecture summary plus slides)

No one is afraid of this GM mosquito--because he has been egineered to have a comforting blue color!So as the Twitter-ban saga played out, I made my way to Washington to address the National Academy of Sciences & International Life Sciences Institute. The topic was public perceptions of novel- or emerging-technology risks (slides here).

I told the audience that I had 7 points to make: three about why the Science of Science Communications isn’t “there yet” on risk-perception forecasting; and 4 more about how it might get closer by empirically investigating public reactions to gene drive and related forms of biotech.

I told them I was going to defer the 7 points, though, and simply describe three studies first. This format has really grown on me in the last year or so, despite its violation of the principle that one should start with one’s core thesis to orient the audience & motivate exposition.

The first study was the one reported in “They Saw a Protest.” In that study, we investigated how subjects, playing the role of jury members, would evaluate disputed facts in a case in which demonstrators were suing the police for breaking up a political protest. We found that the subjects conformed their perceptions of the demonstrators’ behavior to the subjects’ positive or negative cultural predispositions toward the demonstrators’ cause (anti-abortion in one condition; anti— don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for military service, in the other).  This effect was consistent with the dynamic of identity-protective cognition,  which refers to the tendency of people to selectively credit and discredit evidence in patterns that reflect and reinforce their group commitments.

The second study related to a novel form of applied science: nanotechnology. In “Cultural Cognition of Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits,” the subjects were randomly assigned to either a “no information” condition, in which they simply assessed the risks and benefits of nanotechnology; or a “balanced information” condition, in which they made their assessments after first reading a balanced set of statements on nanotechnology risks and benefits.

The responses of subjects in the “no information” condition were pure noise. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: 80% of the subjects said they either knew nothing or very little about nanotechnology.

In the “balanced information” condition, in contrast, the subjects’ split into factions consistent with the their cultural predispositions toward environmental and technological risks generally. As in “They Saw a Protest,” this effect suggested the biased assimilation of factual information functions as a form of identity protection.

The third study concerned the HPV vaccine: “Whose Afraid of the HPV vaccine and Why.”  As in both “They Saw a Protest” and “Cultural Cognition of Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits,” subjects of opposing cultural outlooks polarized over the significance of balanced information.  However, an even more potent influence was the position of “culturally identifiable” public health experts—pictured individuals who pretest subjects perceived to be subscribing to opposing cultural outlooks. We had predicted that identity-protective cognition would produce this effect: subjects’ tacit identification of the cultural outlooks of the experts, we had surmised, would cue the subjects on which position was consistent, and which inconsistent, with the one that predominates in their cultural group.

Against the background of these studies, I started in on the 7 points:

1. “Not there yet”: Culture conflict  affects science but is not about science. The same mechanism—identity-protective reasoning—explains the result in all three studies. Yet the first of them--“They Saw a Protest”—had nothing to do with science. This ought to make us skeptical of science-specific explanations—low science literacy, distrust of scientists, misinformation about science, etc.--of public conflicts over decision-relevant science. What’s needed are studies that examine how science becomes entangled in more general forms of cultural status competition.

2. “Not there yet”: Beware survey artifact. Everyone remembers last year’s wild celebration of three decades of studies predicting how the public will react to nanotechnology as a “novel,” “emerging” source of risk. As the number of consumer goods that incorporate nanotechnology approaches 2000, 80% of the public still admit they have heard nothing or little about this form of applied science. The results we see in lab studies and surveys are classic public-opinion-study artifacts: they tell us only how subjects will react when polled or exposed to experimental manipulations, not how they are assessing information in the real world. Rather than continuing to do studies that lack external validity, we should be using our experience with nanotechnology to figure out why nothing of interest happened to public opinion over this period of time.

3. “Not there yet”: Beware exogenous politicization.  Here is one thing we have arguably learned: that no public conflict over any application of science is “inherently” contentious; something external and contingent has to happen to invest a scientific issue with the sort of antagonistic social meanings that transform positions on the issue into badges of membership in and loyalty to one or another cultural group. The opposing public reactions to the HPV vaccine and the HBV vaccine powerfully illustrate this point.  When we study (genuinely) novel and emerging sources of technological risk, then, we should be trying to identify the sorts of influences that could have this kind of impact on it.

4. “Making it the rest of the way”: Avoid “hyping” (or contributing to same in media). Ringing the societal alarm bell on the basis of survey-artifactual findings of “public concern” (studies of GM food risk perceptions are great examples of this) is not only misleading but potentially dangerous: because how others like them react is an important cue members of the public use to gauge risk, studies that overstate public concerns can create fear, which then feeds on itself—a central lesson of the “social amplification of risk.”

5.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Furnish social proof, not just facts. Again, individual members of the public, lacking the time and expertise to make sense of scientific evidence on matters of consequence to their lives, use the behavior and attitudes of socially competent actors to draw inferences about what is known to science.   Images of such actors evincing confidence in decision-relevant science through their words or actions—not more scientific information—is thus the best way to help citizens align their own behavior with the best possible evidence.

6.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Investigate locally, with field-study methods. Field work should now be the main focus of research of public risk perceptions and science communication.  Studying real decisionmaking in action minimizes the risk of survey artifact.  Moreover, because lab studies are usually low in operational validity, field studies are necessary to determine how the interventions supported externally valid lab studies can be reproduced in the real world.  

 7.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Prefer administrative to political risk-perception management authorities. Administrative proceedings are easier to protect from exogenous politicization than are democratic law-making ones. Again, compare the relative public acceptability of the HPV vaccine to the HBV vaccine.  Conducted correctly, administrative proceedings can still be made responsive, in a confidence-enhancing way, to local stakeholders, whose confidence in decision-relevant science is a prerequisite to its public legitimacy.

* * *

Talk done in less than 30 mins! 

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Reader Comments (6)

Dan - with respect, would you really need 7 recommendations if any of them worked, singly or in combination? Perhaps adding an 8th recommendation - what NOT to do - might do the trick, and I have posted on your previous blog post >
> a suggested new recommendation (do not double-down on any demonstrably false ideas) and 2 examples, one on "gun safety", the other on "Kyoto protocol promotion of diesel engines".

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

@Ecoute-- 7 was already down from 79

July 25, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - did you keep track on how 79 original hypotheses got discarded, recombined, forced to mutate, or otherwise change over time? It still seems odd to me that you include only maximands and no minimands or constraints - conceptually, that is, since mathematically the transformations are straightforward.

Here's an example of one idea that usually works: in military bands, musicians are invariably told that if they lose track of their place in the score they must immediately look at the horses. For some reason horses keep time perfectly - and certainly better than conductors. Check out how nature does it.

"................One outcome of the analysis is likely to puzzle biologists. According to the standard view of evolution, the further a generation lies in the past, the less impact it has on the present — your ancestors from 1,000 years ago probably had less effect on your fitness than your grandparents. But if the Berkeley team’s insights hold up, “it shows us that every past generation contributes equally to what happens in the next generation,” ................"

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Note to IT person: did you install a software update? New posts do not automatically show up on email, even if new comments notification has been requested. Thank you.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

@Ecoute-- this is 1-man show; you're talking to the IT guy. Maybe Squarespace, host of site, did something. But I take it you had a subscription that notified you in email of posts? Also comments or replies?

July 26, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Exactly - and I had to look in here both times to find your responses to me. I'd bet none of your other 14 billion readers is getting updates either - try checking with one of them, as I don't think the problem is with my own email.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

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