Friday, March 2, 2007

The Challenge of Science and Civic Engagement

Many of the most complex and serious issues facing society today have significant technical and scientific dimensions: how to manage climate change, public health, loss of biodiversity, and dwindling natural resources, to name a few. These are not just technical or scientific issues, however.  These are fundamentally social, political and economic problems with substantial ethical, moral and cultural dimensions.  Answers to these challenges require judgment, values and priorities in addition to empirical observation, experimental evidence, quantitative models and methods.

But no matter how you look at it, the "hard sciences" are somewhat isolated from popular culture and the public square.  Whether the loss of prestige, politicization and marginalization of science is cause or effect, whether it is simply a matter of public perception or the nature of big (and expensive) science, whether it is a new phenomenon or as old as science itself, we can all agree that the stakes have not been higher.  We must bridge the gap between what C. P. Snow called the "Two Societies" fostering public dialogue on the science underlying the urgent issues of our day.  The future of our democratic institutions, independent science and even our society itself depends on the effective public engagement with the very best our science has to offer.

Civic engagement that includes scientists is needed at every level in our society.  Unfortunately, there are formidable obstacles to this engagement on both sides of the divide.  Some of these challenges are due to popular misconceptions that stem from specialization and isolation in science itself.  Others are more emotional than logical, based on deeply held beliefs, mutual mistrust, fear and suspicion.  Sensitive media addressing the more human and spiritual aspects of science are important.  But media alone is not the answer.  Face to face engagement and establishing a dialogue of trust and clear motives for collaboration will be critical for our public institutions to engage science and to take advantage of its full potential.

Historically, science has always been the purview of a highly specialized elite, operating in relative isolation from society.  Political, cultural, religious and business leaders seldom have background in the sciences and tend to rely on intellectual tools they acquired in the social sciences and humanities.  It’s natural that popular misconceptions about science abound and interfere with communication and collaboration on every level.  For example, science is not a collection of “facts” as it is taught in school.  Richard Feynman wrote, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statement of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” Steven J. Gould agreed adding, “Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not a compendium of absolute truths.”

Despite inherent uncertainty, however, science is not an opinion, a political or social point of view, or an ideology that can be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis.  Controversies come and go but there is a tremendous body of knowledge that is very, very well accepted that is foolish to disregard because we are less than certain about other, more puzzling data.  Science is a process of discovery but it’s certainly not a mechanical process—inherently dull, unimaginative, dehumanizing and cold.

Scientists know what the public does not:  science is what scientists do and what they have been doing for centuries, not what they know at the moment. It is quirky and imperfect, quintessentially human, a profoundly creative endeavor.  It is infused with ego, competition, politics and calculated risks.  Yet examples of good luck, cooperation, and idealism abound.  There is comedy and tragedy in a classical sense, but the drama often goes unnoticed by the public.  It makes mistakes, serious mistakes at times, but it corrects itself.  It is inquiry, a quest for truth, driven by curiosity and leaps of inspiration and imagination and tested repeatedly with experiments and observation.

And scientists know that their work is relevant beyond their laboratory benches.  Science is a way of knowing about our natural Universe, a rich and rewarding part of the human experience. It is inherently and deeply connected with the arts, humanities and social sciences.  And, although science and technology have not always been used wisely or for the benefit of humanity or our planet, scientists know how they have contributed mightily to the success of our species, our civilization and the health and material well-being of billions of people living today.

But scientists also have serious misconceptions about other disiplines, the social sciences in particular.  They are often guilty of oversimplifying political, social, cultural and economic dimensions of applying science to real-world problems.  They mistake the map of their domain for the territory of society.  Business leaders know that science is just the beginning of product development, not the end.  When answers require knowledge of economics, values and priorities, technicians and engineers need help from outside.  When science challenges religious beliefs, ethical norms or cultural traditions, scientists also have to listen.  Science can inform these kinds of decisions but will never determine them.

We must be careful not to oversimplify the situation; it would be a serious mistake to assume that closing this gap is a simple matter of explaining science to the public or correcting these popular misconceptions with an education or public relations campaign.  The two-way failure to communicate is compounded by a crisis of confidence on both sides of the divide.  Public confidence in science is based on blind faith at best, and at worst is dominated by uncertainty, fear and suspicion.  On the other side, funding cuts, privatization and politicization have also taken a toll on scientists, who have become comfortable in their isolation and leery of greater transparency and public engagement. We laughed at [[w:Carl Sagan]] when he appeared on the Tonight Show, but he was admired and respected.  Who has taken his place on Leno or Letterman?  Al Gore has had an impact on popular culture but he is no [[w:Jacob Bronowski]].  And who would step into their shoes in today’s climate of tenure battles and culture wars?  As scientists have retreated from public view, carefully produced talking heads have replaced the authentic voices of the scientists themselves.  When these “experts” disagree, they only confirm public perception that science is “just another special interest group” or, even worse, several special interest groups.

Who are we to believe?

What has happend to the public voice of science?  And what can be done about it?

Merely correcting misconceptions and telling the truth about science in the media is simply not sufficient.  Paternalistically asserting the authority of scientific institutions only makes matters worse. Who is even listening?  Information is ubiquitous: attention is the precious resource. And most importantly, without confidence and respect, even the most basic communication fails to make an impact.

What is missing is not a simple matter of information, knowledge or exposure, but a series of genuine personal experiences that overcome social barriers of isolation on both sides of the divide.  When scientists engage the public face to face, they share their experience of science:  skepticism, autonomy, integrity, inquiry, adventure, exploration and even beauty and spirituality.  At the same time, legitimate public concerns for economic tradeoffs, priorities, values and traditions can also be aired and experienced by scientists.

There is no mystery.  We know how to design and mange such engagements.  The question is, do we have the will?  How will we muster the necessary resources?  And how can we overcome isolation, create opportunities for engagement for thousands or even millions of people?  Where should we start? Individual examples of successful engagement are all around us.  How can we replicate them and make it scale?

The answer is a very special combination of media and organization we are working on at Science Media and Engagement Strategies.

Ed note:  Science Media and Engagement (SME) Strategies never really got off the ground and I stopped working on it by mid 2008.  But I've preserved this post to capture the gist of the idea and some of the drivers that motivated me.

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