Understanding the Public is Easier than Understanding Science

July 6, 2010

Chris Mooney continues to digest the reactions to his discussions of science education and public policy, and his paper Do Scientists understand the Public?

In the most recent post, he writes that

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a series of workshops on this topic over the past year and a half, and many of the scientists and other experts who participated concluded that, as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public. In particular, they often fail to realize that a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.

Actually, only some scientists misunderstand the public. Which scientists? The scientists who had somehow been believing, after listening to public policy "experts" complaining that scientists wouldn't or couldn't explain science, that they could actually succeed in trying. Oh, but NOW those poor scientists turned out to be deluded. Thank goodness we have revised and updated public policy wonks who can tell scientists that they can't just teach the public about science. Now scientists needn't misunderstand the public, after all -- it turns out that you have to first understand what the public wants to believe.

Socrates had labels for those who told the public what it already wanted to believe: panderers and sophists. Is this what science education in a democracy must come to?

Perhaps we do need to liberate scientists from a task better performed by others. Scientists discover and communicate about what is really happening and why. Some scientists have the extra talent for explaining scientific discoveries at the simpler level of a Scientific American article (for which I'm grateful). But if you also want the public to get behind some public policy, science is not enough. Yet who could really be surprised by this? Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin found out pretty fast that the public isn't ready for science. Science already knew that The People don't usually like new science. Ordinary people evaluate science in just about the same way they evaluate most anything else: through the filter of their moral sense and their social ideology.

I'm often asked whether I agree that scientists should get directly involved with pushing public policy agendas. Or is it better to let people like Al Gore do that, since he has talents for frightening us. My answer is that the science, if well-confirmed, is plenty enough by itself to impress/scare anyone not already numbed by ideology. My answer is that scientists should communicate the science, as best as current knowledge permits: "If we keep on doing X, then Y and Z are probably going to be happening in T years." Let others do the work of public policy: "We stop doing X so much, and do something else to prevent Y and Z." Now, I could not object to some capable scientists doing both. But you cannot expect most scientists to ever get good at both, even with help.

So by all means consult social scientists to figure out how to best pander to the public, to find some palatable way to obtain informed consent from a democracy that ought to do better. Again, I have no objection to pandering and persuading, if done respectfully and sensibly. That is part of democracy, and humanists must do it as much as anyone. But keep science out of that circus. Leave the scientists alone; you will only waste their time.  They have enough of a responsibility to the truth.