NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

IF SCIENTISTS WANT TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC, THEY SHOULD START BY LISTENING

July 1, 2010

Scientists and policymakers should start listening to the public's views on controversial science issues when drafting policies, says science journalist Chris Mooney, author of "Unscientific America: Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future."  

Rather than focusing on the public's lack of science education, Mooney argues that both politics and mistrust towards perceived industry-backed science seem to drive public fears. 

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. 

Climate change:  

  • For one thing, it's political outlook -- not education -- that seems to motivate one's belief or skepticism on this subject; according to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change.
  • These better-educated Republicans probably are not ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically-driven consumers of climate science information.
  • Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite -- more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.
  • In other words, 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. 

Vaccination: 

  • The body of epidemiological evidence overwhelmingly shows that vaccines don't cause autism.
  • With public health at stake, it's no wonder medical experts get frustrated when they hear autism activists such as actress Jenny McCarthy attack vaccines.
  • But once again, the skeptics aren't simply ignorant people; if anything, they seem to be more voracious consumers of the relevant medical information than the nation as a whole.  

Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site: 

  • Although many technical experts have long argued that the repository would be safe, this has hardly convinced frightened and angry Nevadans.
  • In 1991, the American Nuclear Energy Council even launched an ad campaign to educate the public about the Yucca Mountain plan but it backfired.
  • Nearly a third of viewers became more resistant to the repository, and among those who were already opposed, their resolve strengthened. 

Source: Chris Mooney, "If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening," Washington Post, June 27, 2010. 

For text:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/25/AR2010062502158.html 

 

Browse more articles on Government Issues