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The Multiple Meanings of Public Understanding

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

April 28, 2005

Why Definitions Matter to the Communication of Science

Scientists, advocates, and policymakers frequently cite the “public understanding of science,” but rarely ever carefully define the term, leaving me to wonder what is exactly meant when the phrase is used to diagnose social problems, characterize institutional initiatives, or describe entire organizations.

Sometimes the term is used to issue a call to arms in a political conflict. If the public only better understood the science involved, the controversy would likely go away. A scientist quoted in a recent PBS NewsHour report on Intelligent Design, characterizes the challenge to science in typical fashion: “Part of it is a failure to really understand the scientific process. Unfortunately, the United States falls far behind in terms of our scientific appreciation and scientific understanding.”

Institutions frequently use the term to describe their public outreach activities. A recent Irish Times article chronicled the efforts of scientists at University College Dublin to stage a “main foray into public understanding of science” by sponsoring a contest among university researchers to successfully explain their work to an audience of the lay public. “We are trying to reach the public and get science out to a wider audience,” Annette Forde, a biochemist told the Irish Times. “You have to communicate with the public and business community and let them know how their tax money is being spent on research.”

Highly visible and media savvy scientists are labeled by other scientists and by journalists as champions of public understanding. Richard Dawkins, for example, holds the grand (and rather long) title of Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the late astronomer Carl Sagan are noted for their contributions to the “public understanding of science,” and have received awards for their efforts. You might hear a scientist or science enthusiast lament that we need more “science popularizers like Sagan,” or that we need “more scientists dedicated to furthering public understanding,” or that “more scientists need to learn how to communicate with the public.”

Despite its common and ubiquitous usage in science circles, what does everyone actually mean when they use the phrase “public understanding of science?” Clearly institutions and scientists believe it is important, yet the term’s exact definition remains elusive. As I will discuss in this column, public understanding of science can have varying conceptualizations, and how we define the term holds important strategic implications.

Many of the thoughts I outline in this column are not original. Scholars have produced a vast academic literature on the topic, including books, government reports, and at least two peer-reviewed journals devoted to the area (Go here and here). As references, I highlight several leading resources so that interested readers can follow up with more reading on the subject.

Defining Understanding

A British House of Lords study provides some first principles, defining the concept as “understanding of scientific matters by non-experts.” According to the report, the global term “public understanding of science” has become a catch all phrase for “forms of outreach by the scientific community, or by others on their behalf (e.g. science writers, museums, event organizers), to the public at large, aimed at improving knowledge.”

The same report also finds fault with the label since it conveys a “false assumption that any difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the public; and that, with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well.”

A preferred substitute term introduced by the House of Lords is “public engagement with science and technology,” which implies instead a conversation about science between scientists and the public, where both sides learn about the other’s perspective. The House of Lords’ preference for dialogue recognizes that the public in tandem with any technical comprehension of a scientific topic, also relies on both trust and social values in forming an opinion. Subsequent to the House of Lords report, many scientists and policymakers in Great Britain now favor this new emphasis on “public engagement.”

Okay this is a start, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about and where does trust and dialogue come in? In conceptualizing knowledge, I can identify five important dimensions.

“Practical scientific literacy” refers to knowledge that can be applied to solving common everyday personal problems such as consumer and financial decisions, repairing a household appliance or automobile, or interpreting the packaging on food or other products. Although many scientists and institutions deem this dimension of knowledge important (consider how many Americans don’t know how to set their VCRs, or even how a thermostat works), it is not the typical focus when they engage in public understanding activities.

“Civic science literacy” means a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to make sense of a news report, and/or to interpret competing arguments on a complex policy matter. The political scientist Jon Miller has measured civic science literacy in surveys by asking respondents a series of questions that tap their understanding of basic scientific facts, such as the definition of DNA or a molecule, or whether the respondent can correctly identify as either true or false that the “center of the earthy is very hot,” or that “antibiotics can kill viruses as well as bacteria.”

A second part of civic science literacy involves understanding how scientific investigation works, recognizing science as theory building, and science as a systematic testing of propositions. Miller measures these constructs in survey questions by asking respondents to describe in their own words “what it means to study something scientifically,” and by asking respondents about their understanding of the logic of experimental design, control groups, and placebos (See Miller, 1998; Also the National Science Board 2004 for trends).

Many scientists, advocates, and policy makers conceive of civic science literacy in relation to the cultural authority of science, defined as the domain of decisions in society that should be decided by scientific input. Should policy on climate change be decided by scientific calculations of risk to the environment and human health, or by the economic considerations of industry? Should embryonic stem cell research be decided as a scientific funding matter, or as a religious and moral debate?

The popular assumption is that increasing civic science literacy boosts the cultural authority of science. In other words, if the public knew more about science, then scientists would have greater influence over important policy decisions. “To know science is to love science” is the common view. Because of its assumed political importance, most public understanding of science activities are aimed at improving civic science literacy.

“Institutional science literacy” is a third conceptualization that focuses on the politics of science. For example, who funds and regulates scientific research in the United States? How is controversial science such as cloning regulated? How does peer-review work? Does science inform policymaking? Can a citizen identify the leaders of major scientific institutions?

British researchers Patrick Sturgis and Nick Allum argue in a recent study that it is likely that when something goes wrong with science, such as a highly visible case of fraud, unethical conduct, or corruption, citizens with a better understanding of science as an institution are more likely to attribute the episode to a complex set of political and social factors, rather than to the bad character of the institution or of scientists as a group (See Sturgis & Allum, 2004). In my own current research, I am examining institutional science literacy as an important form of mobilizing information. If citizens want to participate in science-related policy decisions, they need to know who to contact, who to lobby, and where to focus their political efforts.

In an alternative conceptualization, sociologists who study science argue that citizens, apart from the idealized textbook image of how scientific research is conducted, should also understand that scientists are party to many social influences, including competition, biases, errors, and career advancement. The lay public should understand what anyone who has ever worked in science already knows: that much of science is subject to the same human influences that occur in any profession (See Collins & Pinch, 1993).

“Low information rationality” is a term I have borrowed from work in political science that questions both the ability and the motivation of the public to be knowledgeable about science. As I have discussed in past columns (see here and here), in the case of newly emerging science controversies such as those over embryonic stem cell research or Intelligent Design, it is unlikely given the many competing events in the world, that the public will hold a great deal of issue-specific knowledge.

Instead, the public makes up for a lack of information by relying heavily on relevant value predispositions such as religion and ideology. Citizens use these values as perceptual screens in sorting through the images most readily available in the media about the topic, mostly sound bites that might emphasize stem cell research “as a source for miracle cures,” or Intelligent Design as an equally valid alternative to “a theory of evolution riddled with holes.” On these issues, political campaign-style tactics are likely to be more effective in shaping public opinion than traditional public understanding of science activities (See Nisbet, 2005).

“A social context emphasis” is a final view of public understanding that highlights the contingent influence of social identity and trust on how information about science is used by the public. The sociologist Brian Wynne argues that the way a particular social group is likely to use scientific knowledge varies by how that group interprets the motivations of scientists and their institutions.

For example, in the case of genetically-modified food, a Green party member in Europe is likely to interpret the information provided by a Monsanto scientist very differently than if the same information were provided by a government scientist. Or in the United States, in the case of evolution, a devout Evangelical is likely to accept the claims of a religious advocate about the scientific basis of Intelligent Design while rejecting the arguments of a university biologist.

Conclusion

The public is far from monolithic in how it is likely to acquire and apply knowledge about science. It is important to segment the “general public” by relevant social identities and values such as religion, partisanship, education, identity, ethnicity, occupation, region, locality, and prior knowledge. This is where dialogue and interaction with the public plays a key role, as scientists and their institutions learn about the perspectives and concerns of these particular social groups, and then tailor their public understanding of science activities accordingly.

The type of science knowledge that matters depends on the issue, the situation, and the goals of the scientific institution. If the goal is to ensure long term benefits to science, including continued government funding and public support for new technologies, then it is important to invest in formal school-based programs that boost civic science literacy, but that also teach about the institutional context of science.

Outside of a few specialized science outlets, the commercial mass media are likely to contribute very little to improving civic science literacy. Market imperatives and professional norms of journalists work against quality coverage of science as a body of knowledge or as an investigative process (See Nisbet et al, 2002). Instead, the media may be much better at informing the public about the institutional and political side of science, assuming such coverage is not heavy with scandal-mongering or comprised of a fragmented focus on isolated incidents and controversial personalities.

If scientific institutions are involved in short-term political battles to win funding, pass a referendum, or oppose a school board ruling, then public understanding initiatives that play on the “low information rationality” nature of the public are probably most effective. In this instance, science can look to political campaigns as an effective model for public outreach.

In sum, there is no easy answer to “improving the public understanding of science.” It is a complex matter that deserves careful consideration, and the many possible dimensions of public understanding should inform the communication efforts of scientists.

References and Resources

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.