January 17, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

What on earth do you mean? An outsider’s view on Public Understanding of Science

pictureThis is a guest post by Hilary Sutcliffe provoked by a twitter exchange: Yesterday Patrick Sturgis tweeted a link to an article he has just published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. Hilary asked for a copy, as the articles are behind a paywall; I sent her the article and asked at the same time what her thoughts were on the matter. This is what she sent me:

Here are some quick thoughts stimulated by Patrick Sturgis’ article “On the limits of public engagement for the governance of emerging technologies”, published on 14th January, 2014 in a special issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science (paywalled). What I am going to say is based partly on thoughts I have been mulling over for a while about the whole field of ‘public understanding of science’ or PUS (only an academic could have coined that term!!) and partly on thoughts provoked by some questions asked in the article, in particular: ‘should the public be involved with questions about technology governance?’ 

What science do I have to understand exactly?

I got into an argument with a respected Professor once about how ‘the public has a duty to understand science.’  Oh puleeese!!  This got me particularly riled, as he seemed to focus entirely on ‘our’ inability to understand, rather than on his ability to communicate and engage in this process.

Most scientists don’t go that far, but nevertheless, it is never quite clear to me with regard to the much discussed subject of ‘science literacy’, or even the old style PUS, exactly what aspects of science I am supposed to understand – all of it!? Biology, nanotechnology, astronomy, particle physics, quantum theory? As I heard on a Radio 4 science programme the other day when one nanotechnologist deferred to another nanotechnologist to answer a question as it ‘wasn’t her area’, most scientists are pretty ignorant in an area not their own. So why am I (as a member of the ‘public’) supposed to understand all of science?

Nah, I am telling myself, the policy makers and scientists who stress the importance of ‘science literacy’ can’t really mean all of science. But what does it mean?  Loving David Attenborough programmes and watching Stargazing Live because you like looking at the stars and fancy Brian Cox definitely doesn’t count. In fact watching David Attenborough and deciding that you feel nature should be preserved and not messed about with, questioning science’s impact on nature and concluding GM is not acceptable within your value set, definitely, definitely doesn’t seem to count!

So we perhaps conclude that they don’t mean we have to understand ‘science’, rather that we have to Understand That Science Is A Good Thing. PUTSIAGT.  Not as catchy as PUS though.

So how much education do I need to UTSIAGT?

Maybe three ‘A levels’ in science subjects might do it. Then I will understand science and won’t make stupid irrational judgments about sciency stuff like ignorant arty types? Perhaps a couple of GSE’s will do? Will I have to read Stephen Hawking? Would a subscription to New Scientist do the trick?

I have a C in ‘O’ level Biology and a degree in History of Art. Oh dear dear dear.  There is no hope for me at all. Quite genuinely I don’t understand science, and after ten years involved in emerging technology, I understand nanotechnology and synthetic biology less than I did at the beginning, and lots of it bores me rigid. I don’t feel it means I can’t make a constructive contribution to the responsible development of these technologies though.  (And Brian Cox is lovely though isn’t he?!)

No, that can’t be right. You can have no exams in science and support its aims and ideals, or plenty and disagree violently with some of its outcomes.  Perhaps they don’t really mean just exams either? What on earth do they mean?

Do they really mean ‘risk literacy’?

The scientific angst often boils down to our attitude and response to risk, for example vaccines, GM or fracking. Maybe a better understanding of risk and how to deal with it is what they are after?  Should they be teaching us risk literacy in school and in the media instead?  This would be great for some, like me, then I wouldn’t have to try to understand physics when I’d rather be doing English Lit or wouldn’t have to feel guilty my copies of New Scientist pile up unread.

No, not sure they mean I can do arts and no science at all either. Though it’s still a good idea to teach us more about how to question information and get more savvy about how people are trying to persuade us. About self-confidence, being less selfish, thinking more about the impact of our choices etc. But that’s nothing to do with understanding science, and might make us even more critical of science and its works.

What does success look like in PUS and PUTSIAGT?

Perhaps I might get to the bottom of it if I asked what it would look like if they had succeeded in having us ‘understand science’?

Have we understood it when loads of us say to the polling company we’re dead excited about nanotechnology (which BTW is already true).  Or we queue for three days in the cold for tickets to the Big Bang Fair? Or no-one objects to GM or Fracking? (aha?) Or research says that Scientists are one of the most trusted groups in society (oh wait, it does that already?)  Or we take everyone’s claims and counter claims with a giant pinch of salt and do what we think is right with the information we have to hand? (Oh hang on, that’s what’s got us into this mess in the first place!)

What exactly are they after? I don’t think they really know.

It’s about values, and more understanding doesn’t mean PUTSIAGT

Are our reactions to vaccines, GM and climate change really that irrational?  The range of responses, from uncritical acceptance, to uncritical rejection are not surprising at all, as the behavioural scientists tell us.  We all act on our values, our self-preservation and in accordance with how we think the world works. (My husband thinks the world is a nasty place and everyone is out to get him; I live in La La Land where everyone is lovely and nastiness has a cause we need to understand. We each think and do very different things with those mindsets.)

These values dictate our responses in areas of contention, and perhaps everywhere else too. So what values have we not got, that they would like us to have I wonder, particularly those of us who are bit difficult and won’t fall into line?

Even if they understand, perhaps they won’t change our minds

It’s very naive of me, but these two articles on GM in Hawaii and the importance of values in decision making, were a stark reminder that it may not be possible in many ways to reconcile different sets of values. In fact the more information people have, the more entrenched their opinions can become.  Involving them may in fact cement their views.  But does that mean we shouldn’t do it, or that if we do do it, we aren’t just trying to persuade them we are right and they are wrong. Does it matter?

The PUS crowd usually respond to this dilemma by talking about Upstream Engagement, lets get ‘em before they’ve even formed an opinion and persuade them we are right’.  Perhaps a good idea, still a manipulation, but perhaps just a better one if it helps create innovations where different values are taken into consideration from the start.

Building trustworthiness – science as if other people’s values matter

Baroness Onora O’Neill in a recent radio broadcast said  “...the slightly plaintive question ‘How can we restore trust?‘ is on everyones lips. The answer is pretty obvious. First be trustworthy.  Second, provide others with good evidence that you are trustworthy.”  She is right. Shouldn’t we be spending much more time looking at the trustworthiness of science, of political decision making and of business innovation, and involving us, the public, in that thinking?

That would mean more involvement of diverse opinions in strategy setting, in respecting other’s values and incorporating them into research and the innovations it spawns.  But also being much more honest and open about the real rationale for technological priority setting and openly respecting and acknowledging others’ different views.

To respond to Patrick’s question ‘should the public be involved with questions about technology governance?’

This is a very long winded blog post to get to the point I would like to make!  The answer is ‘yes’ for two reasons.

The first reason is: Because this is a way of demonstrating and delivering trustworthiness. It might also have the useful spin-off of building trust. If you include groups that many members of the public trust to work on their behalf, like environmental NGOs, it will help you shape governance arrangements in ways which actually work and which reflect societal values and concerns about risk, safety and the benefit of technology and what it replaces.

The second reason is: Because you have spent millions on market research asking the public “What do you think about X technology” (GM, Nano, Synbio, Stem Cells) and our analysis of those initiatives shows that appropriate governance is pretty much top of the list of issues that people care about. When are policy makers and researchers going to stop asking the same old questions and start to involve people in developing the answers they have asked for?

From Hilary Sutcliffe

Hilary is Director of MATTER a not for profit organisation dedicated to having new technologies work for us all.

She is contactable at hilary@matterforall.org

Posted in public engagement with scienceriskScience