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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