June 29, 2010

For Scientists, Understanding What’s at Stake

This Sunday, The Washington Post’s outlook section featured a piece near and dear to my heart. Writing for the Post, Chris Mooney, the author of a paper on the relationship between scientists and the public to be released today by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, scribed: “As much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public.” Mooney’s observations are spot on. “In particular,” he adds, “they often fail to realize that a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.”

I’ve said before (and this is overly simplified) that when it comes to debating science in policy there are two realities: the scientific reality – one supported by scientific evidence and objective analysis – and the political reality, in which the scientific reality is comingled with personal (sometimes considered political) interests. The two aren’t by necessity different, but sometimes they are.

This is the point that Mooney drives home. In making his case, he points in particular to the debate around climate change, noting that a Pew Research Center poll concluded that Republican climate skeptics are generally more likely to be college graduates, and, in a sense, “politically driven consumers of climate science information,” rather than uninformed consumers of the information.  “In other words,” Mooney writes, “it appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject and better information is no cure-all -- people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve.”

Let’s explore climate change briefly. A strong scientific consensus behind global climate change is that human-generated greenhouse gases are affecting the Earth’s climate in measurable ways. The political reality, however, is more complicated than that, in large part because of the political consequences of accepting the scientific reality. As Mooney writes, “People who resist what experts tell them about global warming often appear, at heart, to be most worried about the consequences of increased government regulation of carbon emissions.” So it’s not that skeptics necessarily disbelieve what experts are telling them, they just refuse to accept it because it is in their interest – sometimes politically convenient – not to.

I think it’s important to note that while climate change is the example I’ve highlighted here, it’s worth noting that Mooney points to two other issues – safety concerns with vaccinations and nuclear waste disposal – to make his case, examples that suggest that this phenomena is not exclusive to one political ideology – it’s merely how people react to scientific information. If it suits our interests, we support it. If it doesn’t, we might balk at it.

Mooney’s piece highlights a larger theme, and one that we’ve explored here at CNAS as well: scientists need to better understand the motives behind how non-scientists interpret, respond to and use scientific information.

One of the observations that Jay Gulledge and I make in our Lost in Translation report is that scientists need to be aware that controversies linked to science can, from time to time, undermine relationships between scientists and policymakers (and through them, the public writ large). In analyzing the gap between climate scientists and policymakers, we found that:

Rather than embracing scientific information and analysis on climate change that might benefit the policy community, some decision makers might actively distance themselves from it for a variety of reasons, some of them fringe (e.g., that climate change is a hoax, an effort by liberals to increase taxes, an effort by the UN to exert greater control over American sovereignty, etc.).

Other times, people – in particular policymakers – may actively manipulate scientific findings to suit their interests. As Jay and I found:

Decision makers may try to find scientific data to support a political posi­tion, even when no consensus exists within the scientific community. In these cases decision makers may “cherry pick” their preferred data and seek support from within the scientific com­munity.

Understanding the motives behind how non-scientists (policymakers and the public broadly) react to and use scientific information is necessary to overcome ideological blinders. The question for scientists to consider is how their scientific conclusions may affect different people’s interests. “For this reason, initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation -- before controversies explode -- show great promise,” Mooney writes.

To succeed in getting the public to understand and accept science on its merits, scientists need to understand the people they champion – the full spectrum of human emotion and interests that underlie controversies. For example, for those climate skeptics who are concerned about carbon regulations, it’s about engaging them in a conversation about how best to regulate carbon emissions, because they have an interest in being a part of that conversation.  

Take for example the issue of climate change and the military. The military is increasingly responding to and using climate information as climate scientists frame the discussion around how climate change may affect the military’s ability to conduct it missions, now and in the future – something they have a critical interest in understanding.

The bottom line: scientists need to better understand people and their diverse interests. They can start by listening to the public, as Mooney suggests. And when scientists understand those interests, they may find it easier to communicate how science can support what they have at stake - demonstrating to their skeptics that they have more to gain than lose by accepting the scientific evidence.