Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reactions to Mooney -- or why more data is a good thing

Chris Mooney's recent Washington Post piece and American Academy of Arts & Sciences report (see nanopublic post from June 29, 2010) produced surprisingly strong criticsm from some bloggers.  The idea that the public may increasingly turn to scientists for answers about the social implications of emerging technologies surely cannot come as a surprise to anyone. Neither can the fact that broad societal debates about issues, such as stem cell, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, will take place if we like it or not.

So what was the fuss all about?  Maybe the idea that science as an institution will increasingly be forced to pay attention the social dynamics surrounding breakthrough technologies?  That, for better or worse, is a simple fact, backed by countless studies (see here for an overview), and not a debatable issue stance.

It's therefore particularly surprising that a good portion of the arguments against Mooney's overview are based on normative notions of what scientists should or should not have to do, or on guesswork about how scientists could better connect with public audiences.  Systematic social science data about what the societal realities are that will likely surround science in the next few years or about the most promising approaches for closing science-public divides are noticeably absent from much of this discussion. 

This is not to say that normative policy positions are not worth debating. But in this case, they ironically reinforce the very point Mooney was making in the first place: More social science data would go a long ways toward making all of these debates more fruitful.