Thursday, November 04, 2010

Talk about controversial science may polarize lay publics

Deliberative exercises in controlled and moderated settings have been a fashionable tool for public engagement in science for a while now.  And the idea is not new.  Political science has experimented with the concept for at least a couple of decades, and has come to the conclusion that even the most well-financed and well-meaning efforts are slanted toward specific sub-publics, defined by interest, opinion extermity, and a host of demographic factors (for excellent overviews, see Sanders and Merkle).

Data from one of our most recent NSF projects -- just published as an online-first article in Risk Analysis -- now suggest that real-world talk -- outside of these gated experimental settings -- raises an additional concern: It polarizes already divided publics.  Or as lead author and NC State professor Andrew R. Binder put it in a press release today:
When it comes to public issues pertaining to science and technology, “talking it out” may not always be the best option. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that the more people discuss the risks and benefits associated with scientific endeavors, the more entrenched they become in their initial viewpoint – and the less likely they are to see the merit of other viewpoints.

“This research highlights the difficulty facing state and federal policy leaders when it comes to high-profile science and technology issues, such as stem cell research or global warming,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “Government agencies view research on these issues as vital and necessary for the country’s future, but building public consensus for that research is becoming increasingly difficult.”
 For additional commentary from the blogosphere, see here, here, and here.


The Professor said...

At issue here is the definition of consensus. Does it mean using deliberation to get the public to agree with government agencies or scientists?

Alan Irwin has written some good stuff critiquing the notion that consensus should be the goal of deliberation.

Gaythia said...

I'd like to see more information regarding what forms and forums of public discussion this article is referring to as "real world talk". It would seem obvious that people who feel strongly about an issue would be more likely to gravitate to venues where that issue was being discussed. The way in which they would be likely to refine and expand that opinion over time might depend on how discussion was handled, and who else was participating.
I am sure that "the professor" above would agree with my suspicious nature when it comes to meeting moderators who announce in advance that the goal is "achieving consensus". If the outcome is predetermined, deliberations are indeed pointless at best. A feeling of being manipulated is annoying, and quite possibly could polarize ones attitudes away from that of the source.