Friday, July 2, 2010

Do Scientists Understand the Public?

First thing first: there is no such thing as one public. If there were, we’d only have one type of clothing store, one political party, one television channel … there are lots of people in a variety of publics out there. That being said, it is much easier to call all of those diverse audiences “the public” rather than parse them all out each time.

Second thing second: although scientists are their own special breed of people, they still qualify as being part of the public! In just the short history of New Voices, I’m sure I’ve said that scientists need to communicate better with the public – which, in a way, makes it as if scientists are not part of the public. That is not at all what I meant.

Scientists live in their communities (even if it feels like they live in their labs), vote in the same elections, eat in restaurants, buy new tech gadgets, drive on interstates … they are the public. We are ALL the public. But again, it is a bit easier to type “the public” than “non-scientific audiences.”

Now that we’ve cleared up that we’re only using the phrase “the public” because it is convenient, let’s get into the question of the day: do scientists understand the public?

To answer that, I think we have to look at what makes scientists different from the rest of the public. The number one thing is probably thought processes. From the four focus groups mentioned in the Mooney article to countless other examples throughout history, it seems as if the approach scientists take to an issue is incredibly different from the approach of someone without scientific training.

Some claim that the emotion that the public brings to a debate leads to impractical decisions. Others say that the lack of (com)passion shown by scientists in a debate denotes a lack of interest in any position but their own. This isn’t a gulf or even a two cultures issue – this is simply a communication problem.

As with any relationship, knowing others and how they work makes things easier. Just as men being from Mars and women being from Venus doesn’t stop male-female interaction, scientists and the public can successfully come together and understand each other. But everyone must take the time to get to know everyone else instead of resorting to stereotypes and popular (mis)conceptions.

Mooney presented a number of other issues in the piece. What struck you as most important? What are the next steps to answering the title question? To better communication between scientists and the public?

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  1. Coming from the background of science research, I think one of the most important aspects here is getting scientists behind the idea that understanding and listening to the public and their ideas doesn't have to compromise their scientific findings. I think a common fear among scientists is that the scientific message will be lost among the media and the public. We, as advocates, must emphasize that if scientists can learn the best ways to work with the public, their scientific ideas will not only be preserved, but be strengthened and passed on to more and more of our society.

  2. This is a great article. Mooney writes clearly and seems to have good insight into both his scientific and non-scientific audiences. What resonated the most to myself is the idea that if our fellow Americans just knew more about science a healthier relationship would exist between the public and researchers.

    To scientists and technically minded individuals more information is always better. Mooney points out that this may not be the case for the general public (deficit model p.2). Scientists answer questions in their field by collecting more and more data, and analyzing it in innovative ways. This probably isn't how the minds of non-scientists operate and we should consider that some people get saturated when more and more information is piled on them. The article demonstrates that explaining science in a clear manner is more important than overwhelming the public with information.