Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do search engine suggestions make the most popular angle of an issue more popular?

A few more follow-ups on the nanopublic post on Google from May 7, 2010. UW-Madison did a press release today, including some commentary from Dominique Brossard:
"Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google to sort search results, in part, based on how popular particular sites were," [she] says. "For science information, that means that surfers may be offered the most popular results rather than the ones that best represent the current state of the science."
Update: USA Today, Nanowerk.com, Madison.com, science + religion TODAY and UW-Madison eCALS have also posted their takes on this research.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How can we improve public trust of science in America?

Based on increasing concerns in both developed and developing nations about low levels of public trust in science, science+religion TODAY recently asked me for "a quick and dirty answer" to the following question: "How can we improve public trust of science in America?"  Here's my response:
"The good news (and the bad) is that public opinion is somewhat fickle.  Like many other attitudes and opinions that we think we hold firmly, our feelings of trust in political actors or institutions are highly susceptible to what is most salient or easily accessible in our minds when we express these feelings. Social scientists refer to this as priming. In other words, whatever considerations are made most salient by heavy media coverage, also tend to be the ones we take into account when forming attitudes. This is not any different for science and scientists.
During the week of December 7-13, 2009, for instance, the subject of global warming occupied one of ten stories published in news media (the most attention it received in the media since the Project for Excellence in Journalism began monitoring the news in 2007). And most of this coverage focused on the potential ethical lapses committed by scientists during Climate-gate (a charge that the UK House of Commons later rejected, by the way). In other words, the public’s thinking about scientists right now is influenced heavily by highly-visible recent coverage of scientific controversies and the politicization of supposedly objective science.  At least, those are the considerations that are most easily retrieved from memory when respondents are asked about how much they trust scientists in surveys.

This is not all bad, of course, since it implies that it is up to scientists to reverse this trend and play a more proactive role in informing public debate, and in highlighting the aspects of science that they think are most important for citizens to understand.  If this means an all out street fight for public opinion, as some have argued, or more nuanced strategies targeted toward convincing a reluctant public of the benefits of science, is another issue.  In either event, the ball is in the court of scientists.

Finally, trust is not everything. Public attitudes toward science and scientists are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, and trust in scientists is just one of many important influences. My colleague Dominique Brossard here at Wisconsin, for instance, has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public, something she refers to as deference toward scientific authority. Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. But the climate change of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow.  The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust, than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large. Once we start seeing significant declines in these more ingrained values, we are in real trouble."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When art meets science: "Symphony of science"

“[T]here are two ways, I think, science can learn from the arts – at least two ways: one, very concretely, in terms of ideas, and the other in terms of communication.”

Adam Bly, Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Seed Magazine: "What can science learn from the arts?"

Friday, May 07, 2010

what people think when they think about nano ... and what role google may play in all of this

When asked in U.S. public opinion surveys which topics or applications they connect with nanotechnology, almost nine out of 10 members of the lay public mention the medical field as one of these connections.
(Based on: Cacciatore, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., & Corley, E. A. (forthcoming). From enabling technology to applications: The evolution of risk perceptions about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662509347815http://pus.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/0963662509347815v1.)

This is somewhat surprising, for at least two reasons. First, systematic analyses of newspaper coverage of nanotechnology in the U.S. show health-related topics as one of the dominant areas emerging for nanotechnology.
(Based on: Dudo, A., Dunwoody, S., & Scheufele, D. A. (2009, August). The emergence of nano news: tracking thematic trends and changes in media coverage of nanotechnology. Paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication, Boston, MA.)
More importantly, however, some of our more recent work in Materials Today -- conducted as part of the Societal Implications Group of the UW Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center on Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale -- suggests that news users' increasing reliance on online sources for science information may explain much more about lay publics' reactions when they think about nanotechnology.

From the paper:
"When searching Google for information about nanotechnology, citizens are likely to encounter health-related content, either through suggested search terms or through the search results provided by Google. This pattern was pervasive across different areas of application, i.e., even for searches not directly related to health. Several non-health searches had more health-related keywords per link than any other domain when averaged over the time period of our study.
This raises serious questions about the delivery and social value of scientific information delivered online.  Framing, while necessary to efficiently communicate complex information to lay audiences, influences people’s choices about an issue16.  It is reasonable to assume that search results that frame nanotechnology in a medical context will also be influencing people’s future searches, further reinforcing Google suggestions and website rankings that are at least partially based on previous searches and indexed web pages. This may create a self-reinforcing spiral that cements a link between health and nanotechnology in online news environments, and reduces the complexity and detail of the information that citizens are likely to encounter online."