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Marrying Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy

Posted By Richard O Lempert On October 9, 2007 @ 11:59 am In Article, Cultivating Science | 3 Comments

Science policies, such as decisions on how to allocate National Institute of Health or NASA funds, are too important to be left entirely to scientists. Policies that might be informed by science—for example, responses to the threat of global climate change—are of even more general concern. No one, I think, would dispute that in a democracy, the public, speaking through its representatives, has an important role to play in defining priorities for scientific investments, determining what risks are worth taking to advance science, and developing policies that reflect scientific understandings.

But if the American public’s grasp of scientific knowledge is weak, then its science-related policymaking may be seriously flawed. And when one considers the attention given to science news and the state of science knowledge in this country, it is easy to despair.

Public opinion surveys by The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which looked at 19 news categories during the years 2000 to 2006, found that only 16 percent of respondents reported following science news closely, tying it with news of other nations for last place in reader interest. It is perhaps good news that the public claims to be almost as uninterested in celebrity scandals and sports, but the 16 percent of respondents with a special interest in science news stories compares unfavorably with the 37 percent of respondents who closely followed news of natural disasters or the 40 percent who followed weather news and the similar proportion who tracked stories relating to money.

In their areas of expertise scientists are particularly well-respected and are trusted to make sound judgments that extend beyond the realm of pure science.

One reason for this low interest in science news may be that it hardly leaps out to the average television viewer, newspaper reader, or web crawler. Looking at how the “newshole” is apportioned, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the most recent quarter science and technology news ranked 19th out of 26 topics in the news time or space devoted to it, occupying about a 1 percent share across all media.

Tests of the public’s science knowledge seem discouragingly consistent with the scant attention given science news. The most recent National Science Foundation Science Indicators report draws on different surveys to tell us that only about 54 percent of Americans realize that antibiotics do not kill viruses, fewer than half know that genetically modified foods are in their neighborhood grocery store, and only 44 percent believe that human beings developed from other animal species (about three-quarters of those responding realize that the theory of evolution says this, but many reject the theory).

Indeed, more people believe that houses can be haunted than accept the theory of the Big Bang, and 29 percent are not certain that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. This relative lack of interest in and knowledge of science appears to bode ill for scientifically informed public policies. The actual situation is, however, both better and worse than these figures indicate.

It is worse in that much of what qualifies as science news is event coverage rather than science coverage. Some people who say they closely follow stories about climate change may be paying attention only to stories about the threat that polar ice melting poses for the polar bear or walrus population. Others who track climate change stories may mistakenly believe that climate scientists are more or less equally divided about whether human activity has contributed to climate change and that there is no way of knowing which group of scientists is most likely correct.

Neither breed of science-news followers may have learned anything about the science itself from reading the news. In addition, the NSF science knowledge data are likely to be unduly rosy. Since most of the NSF’s survey questions require answers of true, false, or uncertain, some correct answers may be uninformed guesses.

But looked at another way, if 44 percent of American adults (and the proportion is higher in other surveys) accept the theory of evolution, then about 100 million Americans grasp this most basic of scientific paradigms. Even the 16 percent of the population who say they closely follow science stories numbers in the tens of millions. That’s a lot of people.

But what, or more precisely who, informs those 44 percent who grasp the efficacy of the theory of evolution or those 54 percent who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses? There are many sources. Evolution has long been taught in high school biology courses, and not only do doctors explain medications to their patients, but there have also been enough news stories highlighting the limitations of antibiotics so that if those who follow science news tell their families and friends, knowledge will vastly expand.

Particularly important for the prospects of sound science-based policies is the consistent finding that Americans hold scientists in great respect. In a 2004 Harris interactive poll, for example, scientists and physicians received the highest prestige ratings among 22 occupational groups. And scientists and physicians were the only professions rated in the top prestige category by more than half of those responding.

We might, were it possible, get the biggest science bang for our educational buck if we could teach biology to seminarians or physics to news anchors and talk show hosts.

Moreover, in their areas of expertise scientists are particularly well-respected and are trusted to make sound judgments that extend beyond the realm of pure science. Thus, in the United States, scientists are considered more trustworthy than any other group involved in biotechnology issues such as genetically modified foods. Similarly, about 80 percent of the population expresses great trust in nanoscientists—even though most Americans probably have only a dim understanding of the intricacies of nanotechnology, let alone the social and ethical implications of nanotech research and development.

These polling data are important because of what they reveal below the radar of science poll conclusions. Science-knowledge questions and standard inquiries into science news familiarity typically focus on what respondents do and do not know. They shed little light on why respondents do or do not know, and do or do not seek to know, more about science. Thus they miss reasons to hope for sound science-based policies as well as mechanisms for boosting the American public’s basic understanding of science.

We can safely assume that some people do not seek out knowledge because they trust others to make crucial decisions. If the trust is well placed, and technical knowledge is required to decide wisely, then deferring to the more knowledgeable is likely to be a good decision-making strategy. We see this in the investment decisions that have led to many of America’s scientific triumphs; in particular in the public’s willingness to support, through the NSF and other federal agencies, large investments in basic science research that has no obvious or immediate practical payoff.

It is also true that people learn much of what they “know” not from the news or through formal education, but rather from those they interact with. These informal networks may provide accurate or inaccurate information. It seems safe to assume that most people who reject the idea of evolution have learned little about the science that supports evolutionary theory. Rather, they have accepted as “fact” what others have told them, or they simply defer in their judgments to the knowledge claims of others, including, in the case of evolution, the Bible.

But it seems also safe to say that many who report believing in evolutionary theory have as little first-hand knowledge about the science supporting evolution as those who reject it. The difference between the two groups lies not in what they have been taught about evolution or acquired from their own reading, but rather in their network embeddedness: to whom they listen and to whose authority they will defer—often to the point of accepting a conclusion with little understanding of the underlying facts and issues.

From this perspective, it is good news indeed that many people know enough science to correct their neighbors’ misapprehensions and that scientists are widely accorded considerable respect. This means that when scientific consensus is reached on an issue, many will accept the consensus judgment regardless of how well they understand the science. In fact, only an authority as powerful as the perceived word of God is (for some) able to forestall widespread deference to science.

But fairness should mean presenting the actual state of scientific consensus.

One implication of the importance of networks to knowledge is that improving the science education of those people whom others look to for knowledge may be as or more important to the development of sound science-based policies as directly educating the broader public. We might, were it possible, get the biggest science bang for our educational buck if we could teach biology to seminarians or physics to news anchors and talk show hosts. Absent this, we should realize that every person who is well educated in science or who follows science news closely potentially contributes to well-informed science-based policies—not only by expressing his or her own educated preferences but also by affecting the preferences of others.

But as important as it is to educate people generally—and opinion leaders in particular—in science and modes of scientific thought, it is equally important to develop mechanisms to accurately convey degrees of scientific consensus to the public. When people mistakenly think there is scientific uncertainty about an issue, it frees them to act in disregard of science. When they think there is a consensus that does not exist, they may be unduly deferential in accepting policy recommendations.

Businesses have long recognized the power of scientific consensus and have thrown up scientific smokescreens to suggest more uncertainty than exists on issues and so forestall attempts at regulation or changed public preferences. The efforts of big tobacco to create an appearance of controversy on the health effects of tobacco are the best known example, but there have been many others. Politicians also are not above making scientific judgments appear less or more certain than they are when this suits their political agendas.

The ability of businesses and politicians to make science controversies appear more alive than they are is facilitated by the tendency of the media to give significant time or space to both sides of a scientific dispute, perhaps because this may seem to be what fairness requires. But fairness should mean presenting the actual state of scientific consensus. Giving two scientists equal time to offer conflicting views on whether human activity has contributed substantially to global climate change suggests a deep division within the scientific community on the subject. But suppose any such debate were followed by information that 97 percent of scientists polled agreed with one position rather than the other. Imagine if that information preceded the debate.

From the point of view of informed public policy it is fair to ask whether the American science glass is half empty or half full. I lean toward half full, but that hardly matters. Either way the situation can change. We as a nation have much to gain if change is in the direction of a scientifically better informed public and science policies that accept rather than contend with the best thinking that science can offer.

This requires the ability to separate genuine scientific debates from manufactured scientific controversies. A desire that the world be a certain way doesn’t make it so. It is true that even a widely accepted scientific consensus may be mistaken, but scientists do not hasten to arrive at consensus. When they do, we ignore the best current science at our peril.

Science progress, with its implications for ethics, policy, and better living, depends on citizens who can recognize good science or who at least know enough about science to place their trust only in the science judgments of those who do. If this new publication, Science Progress, requires a rationale beyond promoting knowledge for its own sake, this is it.

Richard O. Lempert is the Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology at The University of Michigan Law School.

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