Talking about talking

Let’s talk about talking, shall we?

Many scientists and experts believe that to win over the public – to make them feel the same way they do towards their work – is to impart more facts to the public.

Let’s say you want to convince people that your research into genetic engineering should be funded, but people are uncomfortable about the possible applications. So, you painstakingly explain the science behind what you’re doing, pointing out at length how many safeguards you have in place to stop the genetically modified murder-pigeons from escaping the lab. The public, you think, just need to be better informed, and all will be well. Environmental science, biotechnology, nuclear physics, ┬ámurder pigeons – all the public needs to do is understand, and they’ll agree with us. There’ll be no more controversy.

This is a very tempting argument, and it sort of feels like it should be true. But the problem is that it’s not even slightly how things work.

That view – that the only thing preventing the public from supporting us completely is a lack of information – is known as the ‘deficit model of science communication’, and you see it all the time. It’s tempting to believe that people only make decisions based on evidence, but the truth is that nobody does, not even scientists. There are all these other factors that come into play – called externalities in the lingo – like culture, personal history, and politics. So even if your murder-pigeons genuinely cannot escape their titanium electro-cages, and they’re only called murder-pigeons because you named them after your favourite kindly aunt, Auntie Murder, people have seen enough movies to be strongly suspicious of things like that.

And the thing is, who says they’re wrong to be suspicious, or not as enamoured with the science as you are? These externalities are not necessarily invalid ways to come to a decision about something. It all depends on what you value, and there’s no objective way to determine that.

In a convenient piece of timing for writing this blog, the results of the latest survey of the UK public’s attitude towards science have just been published. It shows that 68% of people would like scientists to spend more time discussing the social and ethical implications of their work with the general public, and 71% of people think they ought to hear about potential new areas of science and technology before they happen, not afterwards. And this points to how scientists, and people like myself who work in science communication, can more successfully engage people with science, and get them on our side – it needs to be a conversation. Not just a one-way transfer of information from the scientists head into a grateful populace, but rather a sharing of ideas and values from the start. If you listen to people, they’re more likely to listen to you, and you just might learn something yourself.

So when our own Rosemary Stone falls foul of the same deficit model thinking, it creates quite a big problem for everybody.

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