Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the importance of social science for scientific progress

Chris Mooney had an excellent piece in the Washington Post on Sunday on the importance of communicating science and social science, more broadly, for scientific progress in the U.S.  From his concluding paragraphs:
"Experts aren't wrong in thinking that Americans don't know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might, in the process, find a few pleasant surprises. For one thing, the public doesn't seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it's scientists who are wary of the media and the public."
And there may be more of a fertile ground for Mooney's recommendations than he implies in his last point. While the AAAS/Pew survey cited in Mooney's piece suggests that scientists are weary of getting caught up in the often heated public discourse surrounding scientific controversies, more systematic survey data from Europe, Asia and the U.S. show that this is not true for many of the leading scientists in fields, such as nanotechnology or stem cell research. A number of colleagues and I detailed these findings in a piece in The Scientist last year:
"What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment [in the AAAS data] may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field.

When asked in this more balanced way, 54% of the nano scientists disagreed "somewhat" or "strongly" that media coverage was "hostile toward science." In fact, when asked about the scientific accuracy of coverage, nano scientists were split, with 27% believing that it was inaccurate, 28% believing it was accurate, and about 45% falling in the neutral middle category. Similarly, 49%of biomedical researchers disagreed that media coverage was "hostile toward science," while only 12% agreed. Their assessments of accuracy were similarly split: 33% believed that coverage of their field was inaccurate, 35% believed it was accurate and 32% were undecided."

The Mooney piece is based on a longer report he did for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Also, for a follow-up with reactions from STS, policy and communication scholars, see Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth.