Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New UW study: Internet may be critical for closing science-public divides

From UW news service:
March 31, 2010

by Chris Barncard

Internet-based science news draws a more demographically diverse, learned and focused audience than print or television news, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison communication researchers.

"Science and technology are among the top reasons people go online," says Ashley Anderson, a UW-Madison doctoral student in life sciences communication. "And those people are more diverse in age and race and more knowledgeable about science and technology than people relying on traditional media. This points to the importance of online communication in reaching a broad audience for science."

Readers of science and technology news online are twice as likely to come from non-white racial groups as consumers of print science news. The Internet virtually levels out gender differences, according to data from the Nielsen Company and UW Survey Center, while shifting upward the percentage of the audience with college degrees and completely missing those without high school diplomas.

Tracking Google search queries and Web content on nanotechnology, Anderson — along with UW-Madison life sciences communication professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele — analyzed who goes online for science content, what nanotechnology topics people are looking for, and what they are likely to find when they search for nanotechnology online. Their work will appear in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research and is available now on the journal's Web site.

The researchers found that online searchers were most interested in nanobots and health topics, with specialized applications of nanotechnology cropping up slightly less often. In analysis of 19 top sites commonly found in Google searches, health-related information dominated, appearing roughly twice as frequently as technology, research and business nanotech information.

"Clearly, health is the dominant topic for nanotechnology, which somewhat restricts the discourse," Brossard says. "Obviously the technology has much wider applications."

Tracking online content about nanotechnology is important because of the specialized nature of the topic, which is less likely to be found covered in depth in traditional print or broadcast media, according to Anderson.

"Our study tracked 10 different content themes and found that different types of Web sites deal in widely different types of nano content," Anderson says.

Science sites without a particular nanotechnology focus — and — were more likely to feature stories about applications of nanotechnology in health or environment or national security arenas. Web sites aimed specifically at nanotechnology — and among them — were more likely to be reporting on policy issues such as research and regulation, while health almost disappeared as a topic. Government sites primarily focused on business information.

Topics like risks, benefits and uncertainty fell well behind the rest of the content.

"How nanotechnology is portrayed online is important because of the broad reach online media has to different audiences of science information," says Anderson. "Online media sources are the predominant information environment for specialized scientific issues like nanotechnology."

Saturday, March 06, 2010

beyond cross-tabs ... and toward a more sophisticated understanding of public opinion on nanotech?

This week, we saw another summary report on public attitudes on nanotech -- this time issued by the UK's Food Standards Agency.  And there were no surprises as far as punchlines go: a lack of familiarity with nanotech and its applications among the general public and some concerns. The report's conclusions were based mostly on reports of dichotomous cross-tabs -- with little baselining against insights from social science research more broadly about how attitudes are formed, and few statistical controls to provide more granular information into different sub-publics or rule out alternative explanations.

And don't get me wrong, reports like this are very useful, especially as initial quick snapshots of what the public opinion landscape may look like and where we need more research. But similar to recent discussions about the simplistic polling on the health care debate, continuing to reduce the issue of nanotech to aggregate percentage breakdowns of familiarity and support does little to help our understanding of the dynamics surrounding public communication about emerging technologies or to inform and improve policy decisions. 

In fact, it is time for us to move beyond a few often-repeated (but incorrect) assumptions, and look at data in a much more sophisticated (and ultimately useful) fashion:

First, many people (including the most recent report) have argued that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology have not increased significantly in the last few years.  This is true if we look at the U.S. population as a monolithic whole, assuming that 308 million Americans (or the population of any other country, for that matter) approach nanotechnology in the exact same fashion, regardless of political views, education levels, experiences with previous technologies, etc. Of course, we know from previous research that this is not true, and that the U.S. and other countries may differ significantly as far as attitudes toward nanotech go.

Not surprisingly, therefore, more recent data suggest that knowledge levels about nanotechnology are not static, and that we may be witnessing increases in knowledge and awareness among some groups, while other groups show decreases in understanding, as policy discussions  about toxicity, regulations and applications becomes more complex. In other words, if we examine public opinion data in a more granular fashion, it becomes clear that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology seem to be in flux and that gaps between the already highly-informed and those with less familiarity about nanotechnology may be widening.  And what makes these widening gaps particularly disconcerting is the fact that those groups who are increasingly being left behind in terms of information levels tend to be of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Second, a lot of research has focused on risk-benefits perceptions as a key focal variable, asking the public if they think the risks outweigh the benefits, if the benefits outweigh the risks, or if the two are about equal. Of course, these measures are likely fraught with order effects and the inability of respondents to make reliable summative assessments of risks and benefits.  In other words, we need to expand our views on attitudes toward research and funding in particular areas of application. And again, recent research suggests that the link between concrete (as opposed to abstract summative) risk assessments and attitudes is not equally strong for all members of the public, but rather depends on a variety of factors, including people's assessment of likely applications and the risks and benefits associated with them.

This raises a third point: the need for sophisticated modeling beyond bivariate cross-tabulation of data.  Offering percentage breakdowns of respondents supporting or opposing an issue may be useful for initial overview reports, but it does little to help us understand the complexities of how different publics understand risks, what informational deficits they may face, or which areas of nanotechnology they'd like to see more of of a societal debate on.

In order to answer these questions we need to move beyond crosstabs and carefully look at what we know from basic research in communication, political science, and other fields about the public opinion and media dynamics in midern democracies. And we need to rely on state-of-the art statistical and analytic tools to tell us about the complex interplay of demographic variables, values, media, perceptual filters, and information, and about their influences on how the public approaches nanotechnology. Figure 1 shows the complexities of some of those interrelationships when predicting general attitudes toward science.
Figure 1; from Nisbet, M. C., Scheufele, D. A., Shanahan, J., Moy, P., Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2002). Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research, 29(5), 584-608.

Ultimately, our ability to systematically plan and evaluate communication efforts that involve all members of the general public in the debates surrounding emerging technologies is very closely correlated to the sophistication and accuracy with which we understand the opinion and communication environment that shapes all of these efforts.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

March 11, 2010 event: "The ‘Science’ of Communicating Science: New Approaches to Bridging the Science-Public Divide"


Suggested Readings:

Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2007). The future of public engagement. The Scientist, 21(10), 38-44.

(Subscriber login required to view.)

Penn, M. (2008). A failure to communicate: Professor Dietram Scheufele says scientists often aren't connecting with the public about the value of their work. And that's not good news. Grow Magazine. Retrieved August 13, 2009.

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Messages and heuristics: How audiences form attitudes about emerging technologies. In J. Turney (Ed.), Engaging science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action (pp. 20-25). London: The Wellcome Trust.

Scheufele, D. A., Brossard, D., Dunwoody, S., Corley, E. A., Guston, D. H., & Peters, H. P. (2009). Are scientists really out of touch? The Scientist. Retrieved August 13, 2009. (Free registration required to view.)

How to get there:

Directions to Edgewood College