Getting an informed, balanced political debate about science

What can be done to ensure an informed and balanced public and political debate of Science and Technology?

We're at the tipping point for climate change (bonus: face in the clouds)
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The Oxford English Dictionary describes science as “…the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”1 But science is much more than that: most scientists enter the profession, and most scientific research is funded, because they believe science can greatly improve society. Usually, these goals of learning more about the world and improving society are coupled. However, new and cutting-edge research has been raising ever-increasing concerns about whether the research is benefitting or destroying society.

Scientists occasionally argue that their work should be judged on a purely scientific basis without consideration for the ethics and consequences of the research; but this neglects science’s responsibility to the community at large. As issues that affect all of us, it is important that a public debate is held about these topics and that scientists properly engage in it.

I believe there are three main barriers to a reasoned public debate.

Emotional responses blinding a scientific debate

In recent years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of scientific controversies involving ethical issues of “playing God”. These include stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified “Frankenstein” foods. For many people, the initial emotional response is that of disgust2 – something dubbed the “yuk response”. In order to have the more productive debate about the science, consequences and ethics behind the work, we must get past this initial emotional response.

Surgeons at work
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In one study, psychologist Philip Tetlock asked people to comment on the proposal to set up regulated markets to trade organs3. For most people, the response was that of moral outrage at treating sacred body parts as secular commodities to be traded. However, when the debate was reframed to neutralise the moral outrage (e.g. by exploring how organ trading would lead to a greater number of scarce organs being available to save more sacred lives), 40% of people toned down their opposition. Neutralising the moral outrage encouraged people to critically analyse the arguments in the debate and come to a more reasoned decision.

On many scientific issues, the “yuk response” is preventing a reasoned scientific debate from happening in the first place. As scientists, we should not ignore our moral guidance, but we must not allow the debate to be blinded by it.

Ensuring the media covers the debate accurately

The media plays an important role in informing society about issues which may affect them7. However, two factors lead to poor and inaccurate coverage of scientific issues:

1.       To maximise readership, the press likes to present scientific issues as a series of horror stories. We’re told that cloning will lead to designer armies of obedient soldiers and that nanotechnology-robots will turn the entire world into a blob of “grey goo”45. These poignant scenarios lead people to make their mind up before considering the scientific uncertainties, risks and benefits to the detriment of a good debate.

2.       To provide “balanced” coverage, journalists will try to cover both sides of the story. In a political or social dispute, such as whether the UK should join the Euro, it is reasonable that both sides should be treated equally and receive equal press coverage. However, it is inappropriate to treat the arguments of both sides in a “scientific-fact” controversy as equal. For example, the weight of evidence in favour of climate change is much greater than that against. Attempts by journalists to be “balanced” and present both sides equally give an inaccurate impression that there is still a great deal of scientific controversy about climate change6.

The Louvre
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Scientists should be aware of the importance of the media in shaping debate and public opinions and that communicating the science can be as important as the science itself.

Engaging the people: Capturing the popular imagination

Because of cultural differences8 between science and art (e.g. science being concerned with truth; art about opinions), scientists tend to avoid the arts. However, given debate is all about opinions, scientists should not be afraid to utilise the arts to catalyse debate about issues of scientific importance.

For example, Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code” inspired a large amount of “real world” interest, television documentaries9 and archaeological research about the Holy Grail in Christian theology. In the same way, the arts can provoke discussion about important scientific issues10.

The arts will, of course, never replace the rigour of peer-reviewed papers and the scientific process; but as a complement can outline the major issues to the public in an interesting and engaging way without undermining the practice of science itself.

Conclusions

As science affects the whole of society, scientists have a moral obligation to inform, involve and engage the public in a debate about science. This should be achieved by focusing the debate on the important issues, ensuring they are portrayed accurately and inspiring discussion about them.

References

1.       Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Science
Online edition. Available from: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/science?view=uk. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

2.       New Scientist: Immoral advances: Is science out of control?
Jones, D. New Scientist, issue 2690, pp. 22-33. Available from: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126905.100-immoral-advances-is-science-out-of-control.html?full=true

3.       Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions
Tetlock, Philip E. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7 issue 7, pp. 320-324. Available from:
http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/tetlock/Vita/Philip%20Tetlock/Phil%20Tetlock/2001-2003/2003%20Thinking%20the%20unthinkable….pdf

4.       The Guardian: Brave new world or miniature menace? Why Charles fears grey goo nightmare
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 29 April 2003. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2003/apr/29/nanotechnology.science

5.       Institute of Physics Press Release: ‘Grey goo’ misconceptions could harm poor in developing world
Institute of Physics Press Release, 27 January 2004. Available from: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-01/iop-gm012704.php

6.       The Independent: Reporters feel the heat over climate change
Ward, B. The Independent, 10 March 2008. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/reporters-feel-the-heat-over-climate-change-793586.html

7.       Public Opinion Quarterly: The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion
McCombs, M. Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 36, pp. 176-187. Available from: http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/extra/McCombs.pdf

8.       The University Blog: Science vs. Art
Blog. 14 March 2008. Available from: http://theuniversityblog.co.uk/2008/03/14/science-vs-art/. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

9.       Priory-of-sion.com: Da Vinci Code Documentaries
Website. Available from: http://priory-of-sion.com/dvc/documentaries.html. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

10.   The Guardian: ‘Space flight can be as luminous as any novel’
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 11 April 2008. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/apr/11/highereducation.comment

Notes

This essay was originally prepared for an essay writing competition at my college. I have decided to share it here as I feel it could be of interest to regular readers. Comments and thoughts very welcome.

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