Wednesday, October 31, 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, despite their utility in policy-making, the "hard sciences" are not always applied.  But why?  Although this is complicated and, for sure, there are many other factors, it's pretty safe to simply observe that, at the moment, scientists and their work are somewhat isolated from popular culture and the domain of policy decision-making.

The influence of science in public policy may have peaked in the Roosevelt Administration when Roosevelt named Vannevar Bush, the first time a science advisor was included in the President's Cabinet.  The Preseident's science advisor continued to serve an important role in the Cold War and throughout NASA's space programs.  In the 1970's we laughed at Carl Sagan when he appeared on the Tonight Show, but he was admired and respected.

Now who has taken his place on Leno or Letterman?  Al Gore has had an impact on popular culture but he is no 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 happened to the public voice of science?  And what can be done about it?

Whatever the reason -- 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 should all agree ignoring scientific theory, evidence and reasoning on these issues at this time is unwise.  Arguably the stakes have never been higher.

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 stereotypes about science and intellectual tools they acquired in the social sciences and humanities.  And therefore 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.”

Unfortunately, there are formidable obstacles to this kind of cross-cultural 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, ignorance, fear and suspicion.  Science media in the short run and science education in the long run can help, of course.  But it's equally clear that science cannot simply "explain" itself our of this deep hole it's in.  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.

But I believe that the largest deficit in popular culture is a fundamental misunderstanding of what science actually is.  And therefore, it's possible that the largest return on investment would be realized from remedial programs in the history and philosophy of science, contrary to conventional wisdom that we need to double down on the STEM curriculum.

And yet what we teach in science is scientific knowledge, NOT the practice or experience of scientists.  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 a process but it does not follow a linear, deductive path.  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 personal and human drama often goes unnoticed by the public.  Science is a process of discovery but it’s certainly not a mechanical process as it is often imagined by outsiders—inherently dull, unimaginative, dehumanizing and cold.

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.

It makes mistakes, serious mistakes at times, but over time it corrects itself.  And that is what make it distinct, what makes it valuable, and also what makes it hard to communicate.  Although it is not absolutely "true", it is a quest for truth, inquiry driven by curiosity and leaps of inspiration and imagination and tested repeatedly with experiments and observation.

Scientists know that their work is relevant beyond their laboratory benches, how their work applies to social, political and economic problems because they are also members of the community, citizens, employees and consumers.  But it seems to me that, despite their understanding of their own discipline and the relevance of what they know, they often have not reflected on HOW they know what they know.  Scientists aren't any more able than any other social group to apply what they know about the physical Universe to difficult social, political or ethical questions.  They are as guilty as anyone 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.  And when answers require knowledge of economics, values and priorities, scientists, 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.

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.


  1. Science Media and Engagement Strategies was the consulting entity I was trying to establish in 2007 before we started Tickl and I stopped pushing the Science Media agenda.

  2. Re-reading this post 5 years after writing it makes me realize how muddled my thinking was then. I was still very undecided if science was a separate society or not. Now I'm quite sure that it's not.