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The National Academy Takes On Science Communication and GMOs

by David Shifrin

How can scientists engage with members of the public to empower decision- making and participation in public policy?

So asked the National Research Council as the premise for its Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences, held at the beginning of this year.

The workshop’s relevance for this community comes from its focus on public engagement in the genetically modified organism debate, something of great interest to many synthetic biologists. While the science behind GMOs is well established, opinions on how and where GMOs should be used vary widely, within science and, especially, in society at large. It is an often loud debate that goes much deeper than just the science.

With that in mind, the NRC, part of the National Academy of Sciences, used the workshop to look at

  • How people process scientific information and come to conclusions from it
  • External factors that affect how the general public views science
  • Culture and politics in GMOs

These topics, along with a full review of the workshop, were published by National Academies Press in mid-July in a report titled “Planning Committee for the Workshop When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms.”

Myth-busting: What Science Thinks the Public Thinks

Importantly, the workshop didn’t just deal with how scientists can or should communicate their work to the public. Even before this topic was raised, speakers at the workshop spent time pointing out “myths about public perceptions of science.” That is, ideas scientists hold about scientific literacy and social contexts among the public which are not supported by the data. For example, while we often assume that more scientific knowledge leads to more support for science, this is not true. “Increased knowledge was not a driver of public perception […]” in some of the issues that have been studied.

Another intriguing discussion revolved around the idea that, rather than coordinated efforts by special interest groups that push non-scientific agendas, individuals themselves are largely responsible for the problem. People have internal motivations, often cultural, that lead them to “find information that is consistent with what their group believes.” This occurs regardless of the extent that an individual “thinks like a scientist.” Importantly, one of the speakers pointed out, scientists themselves are heavily biased by their own cultural, ideological or political backgrounds, despite our desire to believe the opposite.

The third myth discussed was the idea that “the public does not trust scientists.” In fact, public trust and support for science has remained relatively steady for the past 30 years. It is not a lack of trust in science, but — again — a consistent inclination to give more weight to scientists who matched one’s personal cultural/ideological/political/societal context.

Emotional Science

Not surprisingly, these themes of emotion and cultural context ran throughout the workshop and subsequent report. Speakers looked at the decision-making process and “reality filters” (often expressed as a bias towards thinking one’s ideas are more representative of the norm than they actually are). These are processes that are, of course, affected by an individual’s underlying philosophy — their worldview. Here is what William Hallman from Rutgers said:

One of the things I often hear from my science colleagues is that the public is certainly just irrational. But I want to assure you that the public is not irrational. They actually do have a basis for their decisions. They are just different from the ones that natural scientists have. (p. 11)

Hallman also discussed his findings that an early emotional response to something will alter how a person thinks about it later on. This is the opposite of a commonly-presented model where people come to conclusions based on data, which subsequently creates an emotional response. This is especially true for the debate about GMOs, where emotion does seem to have colored peoples’ perspective and either lead them to or work in conjunction with an overestimation of their intellectual understanding of the issue. Hallman again:

“[People] have not heard very much, they do not know very much, they have never talked about it, they are unaware that they are eating it, and yet they have an opinion.” (p. 12)

The workshop also looked at the presentation of science and how it fits within “cultural contexts,” the “information climate” made up of the media, entertainment and advertising, and a person’s “individual characteristics.”

With those ideas, the importance of “framing” a scientific topic become clear. Presenting data must occur within cultural and individual constraints or it will not be recieved. Thinking that the data will speak for itself is a deadly assumption (my words, not the report’s).

This idea extended into the next topic, which dealt with the politicization of science along with cultural influences. Everything from understanding how science becomes politically charged, to the role of scientists in the political debate about issues like GMOs, to the issue of regulation, was covered in this section.

So, What Should Scientists do About it?

The last section I want to highlight here is part 5, “How Should Scientists Engage in Conversations about Genetically Modified Organisms?” One major goal suggested by Yale professor Dan Kahan was that

engaging key stakeholders and ensuring that they know that their concerns are being taken seriously is an important step because others in the community often take their cues from them. (p. 32)

Furthermore, scientists should engage in communication rather than impose ideas on an audience. This includes being involved with stakeholders who may be on the other side of an issues, or those who are undecided. But it also means understanding how people process information and working within those constraints to present a scientific perspective.

Scientists can also benefit from learning to tell stories, specifically the “human side” of these issues, and taking advantage of the many communications training resources out there. Again, just putting data out there for public consumption will get us nowhere, whether it’s in regards to GMOs or climate change or anything else. Instead, we have to examine our own biases, acknowledge our own cultural contexts, and interact with the public with humility and respect.

There is a whole lot more in the 40 page workshop summary, and it’s all worth reading.

To download a free PDF of Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms: When Science and Citizens Connect: A Workshop Summary, follow the link and log in with your existing MyNAP account, create a free MyNAP account, or download as a guest.

In addition, I would encourage you to grab a copy of Communicating Science: Professional, Popular, Literary by Nicholas Russell, which deals extensively with many of these same issues.

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