Friday, November 14, 2014

How should scientists engage the public?

I confess to beating a dead horse recently. In the spirit of being positive, one should not just pulp the corpse but also look at alternative models for communicating science.
Amy Burgin pointed me to a paper she co-authored about the "Public Engagement" model of communicating science*. They have a great little table contrasting the Public Engagment model with the Linear deficit model, and I just want to highlight two bits that I think are most important.

First, what is the major influence on public beliefs and decisions? In the linear deficit model it is scientific illiteracy or the lack thereof. In contrast, the public engagement model recognizes that "values, trust, identity and social networks" are the sources of beliefs and drive decisions. That shift is huge, and making it affects everything else.

Second, the public engagement model views communication as a two way dialogue rather than a one way transmission. This recognition has more potential to change how environmental decisions are made than any other. There is an important consequence too: in a dialogue the scientists can learn important things too. For instance, if you understand what aspect of an issue most concerns a stakeholder you can shift your science to address that issue directly, instead of aiming at what you think is most important (which is inevitably driven by YOUR values, identity and social networks).

Implementing that dialogue is difficult. It isn't enough to simply call a public meeting and listen to people spout off for a few hours (like this). I don't claim to know how to set up that dialogue, getting expert help is very, very important.

Finally, never forget that "... no matter how accurately communicated and understood the science,
public decisions cannot be separated from values, political context, and necessary tradeoffs between costs, benefits, and risks."

*This paper was one part of an entire special issue on the topic at a Cary Conference on the Environment from 2009.

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