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October 1, 2011 / Tobin Craig

‘Scientists’ and ‘The Public’

I told you so. Matthew Nisbet, one of the leading voices in the important emerging field of science communications, has just co-authored a study on (some) scientists’ (survey gathered) views of the public (howsoever imperfectly defined). There is a very thorough precis of it at climateshift (from which I quote below).   According to Nisbet:

Almost universally, studies find that scientists believe the public is inadequately informed about science topics, including food risks, genetic modification, chemicals, and even aquaculture. Further, scientists believe that, except for a small minority, the public is uninterested in becoming more knowledgeable.

The consequence, and cause, of the public’s limited scientific sophistication has also been the subject of speculation by scientists. Several studies find that scientists view the public as non-rational and unsystematic in their thinking such that they rely on anecdotes and then overreact to minor risks. Others have found that scientists see the public as emotional, fear prone, overly focused on the sensational, self-interested and stubborn in the face of new evidence. Because of these perceived limits, scientists argue that scientific information needs to be simple, carefully worded, visual and entertaining.

And as the UCS cartoons already taught us, the public isn’t solely to blame.  Scientists believe ‘The media’ has confounded them, exacerbating the problem:

Scientists do not exclusively blame the public for its failings; they also blame the news media. The public is misguided, according to this argument, because it is inordinately swayed by biased or sensational news coverage.  Studies find that such coverage is often critiqued by scientists for emphasizing the views of interest groups, industry and other vocal minorities rather than those of scientists and other experts perceived as impartial and authoritative. Journalists’ lack of specialist training is also seen as the cause of poor scientific coverage.  Studies do, however, find that some scientists appear to recognize that different types of journalists can produce different types of content, that scientists sometimes lack the ability to communicate effectively to reporters, and that science can be difficult to adequately report….

The 2001 Mori/Wellcome Trust data show that a greater percentage of scientists believe the public trusts television documentaries (67%), television news (68%) and national newspaper journalists (49%) more than university scientists (39%). Scientists further believe that media coverage has influenced public opinion on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), genetically modified foods (GMOs) and human genetics, making the public more confused (59%, 58% and 43%, respectively) and more wary (59%, 69% and 68%, respectively).

The question, then, is what is to be done?  Nisbet thinks the scientists can do more by way of bridging the gap, and that they are a key part of the problem, that more artful communication by scientists with the public would help.  In a future post, I will consider the promise of artful (and politically motivated) communication by scientists.



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  1. Melinda Gormley / Oct 3 2011 8:36 am

    Scientists are not the only ones who should be engaging with the public. Many science studies scholars are as well, or even better, suited to discuss topics involving science policy and interactions between science and society. I believe that scholars of the history, philosophy, and social studies of science need to do more. John Heilbron’s article “Applied History of Science” and the Isis Focus section on “What is the Value of History of Science?” provide a good starting point to think more broadly about the roles that science studies scholars can play as mediators between scientists and the public.

    Heilbron, John L. “Applied History of Science.” Isis 78 (1987): 552-563.
    “Focus: What is the Value of History of Science?” Isis 99 (2008): 318-373.

  2. Daniel Kramer / Oct 6 2011 1:46 pm

    This post and the previous one on the UCS cartoons seem to imply that scientists’ views of the public are wrong (or unhealthy or unproductive).Would this matter? That is, would knowing that scientists’ views are accurate or inaccurate inform what we think would be the best way to engage or communicate with the public?

  3. Tobin Craig / Oct 7 2011 10:36 am

    No. Or yes, but only insofar as we want the scientists themselves involved in the communication with the public. But maybe that should be questioned, as Dr. Gormley suggests. We all know that scientists are often not the best spokespeople, and scientists who harbor secret or not so secret contempt for the people and therefore for democratic self-government, who resent having to defend their authority by adducing their evidence, are probably particularly ill-suited for communicating with the public.

    Maybe, then, we should train/hire a bunch of political scientists and historians and media studies types (along with the not so awkward and contemptuous scientists) to frame and communicate scientific findings to the public, i.e., to cleverly dupe the unsuspecting many into accepting policies that, left to the themselves, they are uncomfortable with (perhaps even for legitimate reasons). This, rather nakedly stated, is what I take to be the goal of much of the work in ‘science communications’.

    What concerns me is that both of these approaches (‘shut-up and listen to the scientists/experts’, and ‘trick the people into abiding by the scientists/experts’) are incompatible with seriousness about democratic self-government. Democracy is simply a procedural obstacle that we need to figure out how to get around.

    Now it may well be that there is no way to reconcile principle of democratic self-government with our manifest and utter dependence on the findings of science and therefore scientists, but I wonder if we haven’t overlooked the possibilities available to us in REPRESENTATIVE democracy, and whether we (and our CONCERNED scientists in particular) haven’t forgotten something essential about the basis and character of the public authority of science and scientists.

  4. Daniel Kramer / Oct 7 2011 2:21 pm

    Agreed. If we don’t think scientists should be communicating with the public then talking about the best ways scientists should communicate with the public is pointless.

    It is reasonable to question whether scientists are the best people to engage the public on scientific issues. Perhaps scientists cannot communicate complex ideas simply. Perhaps they lack the necessary charisma. Perhaps we worry that scientific communication smacks too much of advocacy and therefore would sully the public’s high regard for scientists. All reasonable. It is unreasonable, however, to suggest that scientists are ill-suited for the job because of their contempt for democratic self-government. The assumption here is that scientists believe that policy should follow directly from scientific evidence and as such bypass democratic processes. What scientists believe this? Rather, I think most scientists would like scientific evidence to be understood and to be appropriately considered in the policy process. Scientists readily acknowledge that policy makers should consider a whole host of issues in addition to scientific evidence when making policy. This, I think, is how you explain most scientists’ discomfort with the scientist advocate. The scientist advocate is willing to step beyond the bounds of their expertise to make specific policy recommendations using their authority as a scientist to lend weight to their lay opinion. Many scientists feel this is inappropriate because there are other legitimate considerations with which the scientist is not an expert.

    As an example, consider scientists’ response to 1) those that deny the science of climate change and 2) those that accept the science of climate change but believe that society has higher priorities (e.g. clean water, sanitation, hunger, poverty). Scientific contempt, as you say, is more readily directed at the denier than the person believing in higher priorities. Why? Because, most scientists are content that the science is being thoughtfully considered, and they recognize that policy decisions often hinge on social, political, or economic considerations. Now, regarding climate change, it is true that most scientists feel that scientific evidence should be weighed heavily in the policy process given the grave consequences of inaction. However, consider any inconspicuous endangered species. Rarely does science carry the day on listing decisions (regardless of what the law says) and rarely do you see agitated scientists questioning other reasonable social, political, and economic considerations (activist do however).

    Returning to the issue of scientific communication, I think your framing of “artful” communication is problematic. You present engagement with the public as spin, as deception, as disingenuous. While I don’t deny that there is some truth to this and scientists should exercise caution, we should allow the possibility, however, that communication by scientists could be more effective while still being honest. Consider an example and one that touches on many ideas in this exchange. In 2008, John Sterman published an article in Science entitled Risk Communication on Climate: Mental Models and Mass Balance ( In it, he presents the results of a study of 212 graduate students at MIT. Student were given…

    “…a description of the relationships among GHG emissions, atmospheric concentrations, and global mean temperature. The description was excerpted from the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM), a document intended for nonspecialists. Participants were then asked to sketch the emissions trajectory required to stabilize atmospheric CO2. To highlight the stock-flow structure, participants were first directed to estimate future net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere (net CO2 taken up by the oceans and biomass), then draw the emissions path needed to stabilize atmospheric CO2.”

    The authors found that 84% drew patterns that violated the principles of accumulation. That is, many of the students believed that stopping the growth of emissions would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations. However, we know that if inputs of CO2 still exceed outputs, concentrations are still increasing. The author suggests that the of lack of understanding of accumulation is likely more profound in the general public and largely explains the public’s support of a “wait and see” approach to climate change. Is it a problem that the public doesn’t understand accumulation? Could scientists communicate this idea more effectively? The author suggests a helpful analogy.

    “The dynamics are easily understood using a bathtub analogy in which the water level represents the stock of atmospheric CO2. Like any stock, atmospheric CO2 rises when the inflow to the tub (emissions) exceeds the outflow (net removal), is unchanging when inflow equals outflow, and falls when outflow exceeds inflow.”

    If a scientist held a press conference to explain accumulation with this analogy, would we accuse him of framing, of deception, of spin, of duping the public? Would this diminish the public’s views of science? I doubt it.

  5. Tobin Craig / Oct 7 2011 4:05 pm

    Dr. Kramer, thank you for a very helpful reply to my tongue-in-cheek and no doubt far too quick dismissal of artful communications. My main concern is to highlight the danger of scientist contempt for the public, and the means that this may lead (I believe does lead) scientists to consider when interacting with the public.

    But, I also do think that scientists (of course not all, and maybe not even most) do tend to draw (often without even recognizing it) direct policy conclusions from well supported findings in policy-relevant sciences, and that they are probably the more inclined to do so to the extent they regard the public with contempt. Maybe you are right, and most are entirely comfortable with their cherished data being ignored or drowned out, but the UCS cartoons (presuming they resonate with concerned scientists) suggest that this bothers (some) scientists. My entire approach to this problem is rooted in a belief in the indispensability of the attitude of the scientist who:

    “would like scientific evidence to be understood and to be appropriately considered in the policy process” who, “readily acknowledges that policy makers should consider a whole host of issues in addition to scientific evidence when making policy” and who oppose the scientist as advocate, “because there are other legitimate considerations with which the scientist is not an expert.” Three cheers for that guy.

    Moreover, I accept that the public could be brought to understand how a bath tub gets full, and that they may not really understand that co2 in the atmosphere is like water in a tub, and that to point this out is not spin or deception. But can you really imagine such a press conference ending there? Or ending, “And so it is now up to you, fellow citizens, to decide what to do about our rapidly filling bathtub.” I wish to stress, it’s not clear to me that in every case we would want the press conference to end that way. Sometimes we might need to relax our commitment to popular self-government, or, that we should learn to once again love REPRESENTATIVE democracy.

    But I am deeply skeptical that our friend the modest scientist with moderate expectations is typical, particularly among scientists working in policy relevant areas. Nisbet’s data doesn’t encourage me.

  6. Daniel Kramer / Oct 7 2011 4:34 pm

    Thanks Dr. Craig for your response.

    I see nothing in the Nisbet paper that suggests that scientists believe scientific evidence should be more strongly weighed in the policy process. The article, as I read it, centers on how scientists view 1) the public’s understanding of science; 2) the media’s role in disseminating scientific knowledge; and 3) scientist’s views of the the public in the decision-making process.Scientists want knowledge to be understood and thoughtfully considered.

    The third issue I think is most relevant. Here, there is one study mentioned where scientists thought “a good decision was understood as one that was consistent with scientists’ point of view…” However, this is referring to citizen decisions, not policy decisions. Furthermore, the very next sentence says, “scientists report feeling frustrated when they believe their views receive in adequate attention.” This is consistent with the views of the “modest scientist” I and you describe above.

    Is it contempt or concern? If contempt, I think we’d see more scientists disengaging. If concern, more engagement. I think we are seeing more of the latter.

  7. Tobin Craig / Oct 7 2011 4:44 pm

    Thanks again Dr. Kramer,
    Why, in your view, are scientists dissatisfied? Or rather what is the basis for their dissatisfaction — belief that the public doesn’t show mad love for their DATA? What could it be other than that the public doesn’t fund stem cell research with no limitations, or immediately enact a carbon tax regime, or put restrictions and labels on genetically modified foods despite the fact that there is no evidence of cause for concern etc.?

  8. Daniel Kramer / Oct 7 2011 8:56 pm

    Scientists are dissatisfied because they feel that 1) the public has less understanding of scientific knowledge than scientists deem necessary and 2) scientific evidence is not accorded due weight in public policy decisions. This is different from your suggestion that dissatisfaction is born from the failure of policy to necessarily follow from scientific evidence.

    Each of the cases you mention is very different. Regarding climate change, how can one conclude anything other than the science of climate change has been ignored by policy makers? The only discussion of climate change science by policy makers is whether to believe it. This is not a discussion of serious, well intentioned people with science and scientists at their fingertips.

    I know little of scientists’ views of stem cell research. My sense is that those most vocal about limitations to funding are those whose research and livelihoods are directly effected. My guess is that scientists more distant from the issue likely acknowledge the important value differences fueling this debate. I don’t know however.

    Your reference to GM foods is puzzling. You seem to be suggesting that scientists are dissatisfied that the public doesn’t show mad love for the results that they don’t have. Scientists may argue for labeling based on complex systems theory (e.g. worry about non-linearities and threshold effects that are as of yet unproven) or based on efficient market theory (e.g. full information and consumer preferences). But, as you note, there is little (but not zero) evidence of ecological or human health effects. That is why many scientists find public fear of GM foods unfounded. So, quite the contrary, scientists are divided on this issue. The support you see for labeling comes mainly from consumer rights groups supporting consumers’ right to know (i.e. regardless of any proven effects).

  9. Tobin Craig / Oct 7 2011 9:44 pm

    Okay, but what is the basis for their “feelings”? Surely they cannot be dismayed that the plebs don’t know what they know, or even that their understanding of the total global climate system 150 years out isn’t adequate. Their “feelings” are born from the fact that policy debates haven’t gone the way they think they should. What you are calling feelings are really explanations for disappointing outcomes, no?

    You are surely right that the cases are different. To lump them together would be Mooney-esque. I only meant to give a series of examples where ‘the public’ is often vilified for not having enacted a policy consistent with a perceived scientific consensus. For GM foods I meant only to suggest a general consensus that GM foods aren’t especially bad for you. Sure the eco effects, and nasty practices of mega-agri-biz are also a concern, but in my experience scientists scoff at public worries about frankenfoods. As for the climate science debate that would be a huge discussion on its own. I think it would be worth having sometime. Briefly, I think the debate on the science is a proxy for the real argument which is over the policy response. When I put REPRESENTATIVE democracy in bold, it was with this case in mind… that it is really the abdication of responsibility on the part of our policy-makers, ON BOTH SIDES, that has created the crazy situation we are now in.

  10. Daniel Kramer / Oct 7 2011 11:17 pm

    I don’t understand the distinction you’d like me to make between “feelings” and “disappointment”. Feelings of disappointment? The point is that scientists are dismayed that the public, given their lack of scientific knowledge, is unable to meaningfully participate in the democratic process or in public discourse on issues related to science. They cannot speak as well-informed citizens to their friends, to family, to their children, to neighbors, to their representatives, to their town councils, to newspaper editors. Sure, particularly in regards to climate change because the stakes are high and the scientific consensus strong, there is a belief that if the public knew more, “things would go their way.” This assumption by scientists may be wrong. That is, this deficit model of scientific communication whereby scientists provide understanding and the public then clamors for enlightened policy may be mistaken. An alternative understanding is that values, emotion, affect are important and thus scientists need to connect with the public, not just transmit knowledge. However, the model doesn’t matter. I am reluctant to accept that the disappointment of scientists is a result of a particular policy outcome going against the science. Rather, it is that the science was not appropriately or fairly considered in generating the policy outcome. A subtle, perhaps, but important difference – the moderate versus the philosopher king scientist.

    So the debate on the science is a proxy for the real argument over taxes, tradeable permits, geo-engineering, adaptation etc.? If your point is that there are not nearly as many climate change deniers as various shows of hands would suggest (presidential debates, congressional votes), that most accept the science but want to avoid politically painful decisions, then yes, I agree although I am not nearly as magnanimous as you in attributing equal blame. But an abdication of responsibility on the part of our policy-makers sounds about right.

  11. Tobin Craig / Oct 8 2011 8:13 am

    Let me just say that this has been a very helpful exchange. I remain unpersuaded by your generous and high-minded interpretation of scientists’ dismay at the public. But even the helpful Nisbet/Besley review doesn’t really illuminate the question we differ on. They come closest here:
    “The consequence, AND CAUSE, of the public’s limited scientific sophistication has also been the subject of speculation by scientists. Several studies find that scientists view the public as non-rational and unsystematic in their thinking such that they rely on anecdotes and then overreact to minor risks. Others have found that scientists see the public as emotional, fear prone, overly focused on the sensational, self-interested and stubborn in the face of new evidence.”
    Where do scientists get this view from? From talking with neighbors and family members, as you suggest? Or from observing ill-informed public debates which stymie policy action on urgent issues that the scientists care about, as I suggest? I will go over the Pew and Royal Society studies to see whether I can glean anything there.

    Also, as a student of Plato, let me just say a philosopher king is not a technocrat. A philosopher king’s claim to rule is not just his (or her!) knowledge about being or nature, but about the human things, political life, justice, the good of the community. The scientist/technocrat’s claim to rule is based on specialization, that hallmark of modern (as distinct from ancient) science, in other words, it is based on a belief in the impossibility or obsolescence of the philosopher king.

    Let me also repeat, I am not simply defending democracy. On some cases technocracy/rule by the knowers might be needful, even indispensable.

  12. Daniel Kramer / Oct 8 2011 8:40 am

    One clarification. I was saying that scientists are dismayed that the PUBLIC can’t talk to their neighbors, family etc. as well-informed citizens on issues of science. Also, I in no way see the views attributed to scientists in the quote above from the Nisbet article as incompatible with my high-minded view of scientists.

    Thank you for the correction on the philosopher king. I think my intended meaning was clear although the reference was poor.

    To understand this, I think we’d need to know how a representative sample of scientists would respond to some version of the following question, “Should policy follow unimpeded/absolutely/automatically from good science?” I suggest that most scientists would answer “no” to this question because they acknowledge other legitimate inputs to the policy process. You think they would answer “yes”. I am ready to be proven wrong and if so, I’ll join you in your concern.

  13. Daniel Kramer / Oct 8 2011 10:20 am

    I promise, my last post of the day since we have a spectacular day in Michigan. Reflecting on my last post, I think I have isolated our main point of contention and the greatest vulnerability in your argument. Correct me if I am wrong. You believe that we can learn something about how scientists view their role in the policy process by understanding how they view the public. You believe that because scientists view the public as dimwits and dolts, they naturally desire to monopolize the policy process and therefore bypass the democratic process. In contrast, I believe that scientists’ dismay at the public’s understanding of science produces a desire to better educate the public which of course would STRENGTHEN the democratic process. The evidence, I believe, stands with me. As just one example to which you have referred, witness the proliferation of science communication scholarship.

    Isn’t this it?

  14. Tobin Craig / Oct 8 2011 3:57 pm

    We are in agreement that today is too beautiful for blogging.

  15. Tobin Craig / Oct 10 2011 10:34 am

    Dr. Kramer, I concur that most scientists would answer no to the question you pose (“Should policy follow unimpeded/absolutely/automatically from good science?”). But I believe their discontent suggests that this modesty/restraint is only skin deep. We would need a more artful survey, perhaps something closer to a social psych experiment, or interviews to find out how deep and broad this restraint reaches. And again, I don’t believe scientists are a homogeneous bunch. I think scientists working in policy-relevant areas, or politically/publicly controversial areas are perhaps especially prone to frustration or discontent with the public understanding of their work, and the shortcomings of the political discourse. This said, most scientists I know, regardless of field, when primed by a discussion of stem cell policy or climate change policy quickly reveal their sympathy with the UCS cartoon understanding of the situation: the public is ignorant, they are ignorant both because of bad habits of mind or native abilities, and because of (wicked) interest group manipulations and obfuscations which, together with media simplifications, result in bad policy, even anti-scientific policy (a kind of attack on science). The root of this view, however, is not an inquiry into the matter, but a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, that is, concluding as to the cause from the policy outcome.

    Does this matter? Maybe not. One important indication that it doesn’t matter is the finding Nisbet notes that scientists are particularly interested in speaking with “decision-makers”, sensing, it would seem, that this is where the action is. As I have been suggesting throughout this exchange, representative democracy affords entry points into the policy process other than direct to the public campaigns.

    This said, I do think scientist’s views of the public matter. They matter because we need the public/political authority of science. Concerned scientists with the picture of the democratic public Nisbet suggests they hold may be, and I believe sometimes are, tempted to engage with the public or in the decision-making process in modes that threaten to compromise, or already have compromised that authority.

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