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Science & Democracy Dialogues: A New Series from the Center for Science and Democracy

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This spring, the Center for Science and Democracy is launching a new series of informal, interactive online conversations. Although the technology is something we’re still experimenting with, these talks have already begun to forge connections between experts, early career scientists, activists, and others whose interests intersect at the nexus of science, policy, and society.

Science is one piece in the puzzle of democracy.  Join our Science & emocracy Dialogues to find out where it fits!  This 1990 granite sculpture by W. H. Herrick stands in Burlington, VT.  Photo credit: Adam Fagen

Science is one piece in the puzzle of democracy. Join our Science & emocracy Dialogues to find out where it fits! This 1990 granite sculpture by W. H. Herrick stands in Burlington, VT. Credit: Adam Fagen

If you missed the first two talks, you can watch the archived videos anytime (links below)—but we do hope you will join us for the live-stream of our third event—a Google+ Hangout with Dan Sarewitz. Professor Sarewitz will speak and answer questions about uncertainty, politics, and technology. Through three concrete examples—earthquake prediction, waste disposal, and regulation of toxic chemicals—he will argue that it is technology that helps us bridge the political divide and solve society’s most pressing problems, not necessarily achieving the public’s consensus about underlying scientific issues.

We don’t expect everyone in the audience for the S&D Dialogues to agree with our featured speakers—no doubt this talk will generate lots of questions for Professor Sarewitz during the Q&A! These provocative talks are intended to shed light on why we started the Center for Science and Democracy—on why there is a need to advance the role of science in our democracy, what various means exist  for doing so, and what challenges we face in the 21st century. We hope these talks will be enlightening, and we also hope they will inspire you to get involved and take action on the issues you care about most.

“When knowledge isn’t power”

Our first speaker was Naomi Oreskes, Harvard professor in the history of science and acclaimed author of The Merchants of Doubt. Professor Oreskes spoke about how political ideology has driven some Americans to question the science that has driven policy solutions to many problems, including tobacco use, acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change.

Naomi Oreskes spoke about how science denial has been used as a powerful political strategy used to generate doubt about the science behind policies to address tobacco and climate change. This cartoon appears in UCS's 2014 Scientific Integrity Calendar. Credit: James MacLeod

On March 27, 2014, at our first Science & Democracy Dialogue, Naomi Oreskes spoke about how science denial has been used as a powerful political strategy. This cartoon appears in UCS’s 2014 Scientific Integrity Calendar. Credit: James MacLeod

Science, she explained, suggests the need for greater government regulation of the causes of these problems to protect people and the environment from their effects. But implementing science-based solutions has been complicated by cultural values that are as deeply rooted in American democracy as science is itself. The American ideal of “liberty”—or personal freedom—has always been a core value but acquired a new meaning in the political arena following democracy’s victory over communism at the end of the Cold War. Free-market capitalism—business unfettered by government regulations—was seen by some as the best system for bringing about prosperity and the only one that would also protect liberty. According to this worldview, liberty and prosperity became synonymous. Infringements by government on businesses’ pursuit of prosperity were seen as encroachments onto the sacred-to-American-democracy ideal of individuals’ pursuit of liberty.

At the same time, Oreskes argued, science has increasingly pointed to the need for regulatory control of business, and science—and scientists—thus have become political targets. In this political climate, scientific knowledge became a liability rather than the empowering tool it should be.

During the Q&A, participants pointed out that this was all rather demoralizing. After all, what can we do if science has become so politicized that facts no longer matter? Oreskes responded that recognizing the values underlying science denial can help proponents of science-based policies more strategically engage with opponents and proactively shape public conversations and advocacy efforts.

“Polarization Paradox”

Our second speaker, Dietram Scheufele, co-chair of the National Academies’  Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences and John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took on public perceptions of new scientific discoveries and emerging technologies and how both media environments and people’s values frame these perceptions.

The recent decision by Popular Science to end online reader comments was motivated by the editors' response to Deitram Scheufele's research on science communication. To find out what Professor Scheufele think of that decision, watch the video of our 2nd Science & Democracy Dialogue. Credit: NASA

The recent decision by Popular Science to end online reader comments was motivated by the editors’ response to Dietram Scheufele’s research on science communication. To find out what Professor Scheufele thinks of that decision, watch the video of our 2nd Science & Democracy Dialogue. Credit: NASA

“Disagreement,” said Professor Scheufele, “is good.” It makes us seek out more information. It makes us engage more in politics. And, ultimately, it is good for democracy. The catch is that in today’s media environment, disagreement also leads to polarization. Social scientists call this phenomenon the “polarization paradox”—that is, exposure to disagreement is good but we tend not to produce it in our daily lives or online.

What does this mean for public perception of science and policy on issues like stem cell research, vaccines, global warming, and obesity? The bad news is that the public is increasingly taking an “Amazon recommendations approach” to science and politics. We are relying on “algorithms as editors,” and people are getting different information about the important issues of our day, even when it comes from the same sources. Through social media like Facebook and Twitter, people who think like us pass information to us that reinforces like-minded news and views. And we often know what we are supposed to think of a news story—from online reader comments and from social media—before we read it. This “brave new world” of today’s web environment creates more and more public polarization.

The good news is that there are solutions. We need to develop “core competencies” for navigating information on the Internet, Professor Scheufele explained, because “talking across differences matters now perhaps more than ever before but we’ve lost our way in doing this.” We must redeem the skills necessary to extract factual information in a highly fragmented media world. We need to motivate citizens to be accurate in the information they share.

And we need to restore civil debates. The exact same information can mean different things to different people. Moral, religious, and cultural values shape how we receive information, and we’re more likely to believe information if it confirms what we already believe is true—and to disbelieve information if it points the other way. But, Professor Scheufele concluded, “When people are expecting to engage with people who passionately disagree with them, they are more likely to be careful and accurate in their search for and use of information.”

Talking across differences

My takeaway from both of our first two Science & Democracy Dialogues is that we as individual citizens have a role to play in overcoming polarization through our own everyday actions. We need friends who don’t always think exactly the way we do. We need to have more frequent and more civil conversations with people we  passionately disagree with about  things — science and otherwise — that matter to us all.

These aren’t always easy conversations to have, but our democracy is worth it.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags:

About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, where she researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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