Scientific institutions and organizations can improve their communication and outreach with the public by addressing people's strongly held beliefs about science and its role in society - and using less demagoguery. Or at least hiding it.
Lead author of a new paper and American University professor Matthew C. Nisbet made his name claiming that Republicans engaged in deception about science and that communicators needed to master "framing" to show how they were wrong, so a paper advocating less partisanship is important, in a sort of 'only Nixon could go to China' way.
"What divides the American public in their views about scientific advances? The easy answer, especially over the last decade, is political partisanship and ideology. The commonly held view is that Conservatives and Republicans are anti-science, and Liberals and Democrats are pro-science," said Nisbet, a humanities scholar who studies the impact of strategic communication in policy debates over science and the environment, in their press release. "Yet if we continue to think about public opinion in this narrow way, as policy conflicts emerge, mistakes will be made and opportunities will be missed to effectively engage the public on the questions and concerns that matter to them."
Commonly held by who? Fellow academics, but not the public. The public sees crazy claims about food and medicine and energy and doesn't think the left is more pro-science at all - and it looks like a clever bit of framing to even use a term like "commonly held." When 52 out of 55 members of Congress who want to put a federal warning label on GMOs are Democrats, only a true zealot would claim that anti-biology sentiment is bipartisan or that it isn't an official position of their constituents, while climate change denial is still considered one-sided.
They remain firmly stuck in the Bush years - science media pundits long for George Bush the way old soldiers miss the Cold War - by rehashing surveys collected between 2002 and 2010 about human embryonic stem cell research. President Clinton had wisely dodged the bullet on human embryonic stem cell funding, since it was in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment he had signed, and President George W. Bush annoyed detractors and supporters, including many conservatives in the Republican party who supported it, by compromising with factions in his own party and with scientists at the NIH - compromise was something presidents used to do. He authorized federal money for hESC research for the first time, to allow science to progress, but limited it to existing lines, which kept the issue out of court. NIH Director Ruth Kirschstein said, "We are pleased with the President's decision to allow the use of Federal funds for important basic research on human embryonic stem cells. The approach he has outlined is sound..."
Yet partisans in science media, including Nisbet throughout the Bush years, declared that hESC research was "banned", intentionally ignoring the fact that hESC technology was developed without federal money in the first place, because it was not allowed under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment signed by Pres. Clinton. If science media were not partisan, they would still call it 'banned' today, because President Obama only slightly changed federal hESC funding, much of what progressive activists using science as a political wedge wanted from President Bush they still have not gotten from his successor. His executive order added 21 more lines than Bush had in 2001. Hardly revolutionary for someone claiming he would restore science to its rightful place.
While conservatives like Senators Orrin Hatch, Strom Thurmond and Connie Mack wanted stem cells funded without restriction - no Republicans had protested bone marrow transplants, after all - that changed when Democrats made it into a campaign issue. Sen. John Kerry was defeated easily in 2004, but the manufactured perception among Democrats stuck that Bush was anti-science - though he had doubled funding for the NIH. And Republicans began to dig in their heels on stem cells. Though almost 60 percent of Republicans supported that research then, they still sided with their president, like voters do on lots of issues when there are only two parties, and he vetoed increased hESC lines two more times.
Nisbet and co-author Ezra Markowitz added a new wrinkle in their current look at an old issue. They now conclude it was not simply that Republicans were anti-science, but that people's perceptions about the social implications of science can't be filtered solely through a prism of politics or faith.That sort of framing is nice and convenient, if you write at ThinkProgress, but in the real world it falls flat.
They instead create four distinct groups, which would at least help explain why the left denies food science as strongly as the right denies atmospheric science, and why the left embraces the supernatural as strongly as the right embraces religion, but that overall 90 percent of America claims to respect scientists while 47 percent in each party hold anti-science positions that can be mapped directly to voting preferences.
They say that scientific optimists comprise a third of the public, believe strongly in the link between science and social progress, and are likely to support most scientific advances. Optimists are on average highly educated, financially well off, and disproportionately white. They also tend to split almost evenly by partisan identity, although they trend slightly more Democrat today. 40 years ago this demographic was overwhelmingly conservative but that change fits on a curve that shows academia skewing heavily to the left during that time.
Scientific pessimists comprise about a quarter of the public and have strong reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists, and believe science may lead to new problems. They are the most likely to oppose advances in biomedical research and related fields. This group on average scores much lower in terms of educational attainment and income and trends more female and minority in background. They find that pessimists split evenly relative to partisan identity. If you read about someone opposed to IVF, it is likely a person on the right. If you see someone opposed to genetic modification and vaccines, that will likely be more on the left. But averaged out they are about the same.
The Conflicted comprise about a quarter of the public and view science in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. Though they are socially similar to Scientific Pessimists in their background, they tend to be older than members of other segments. They appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasize the benefits of research.
Finally, the Disengaged comprise about 15 percent of the public, appear to lack strong beliefs about how science might impact society, and as a consequence are likely to be the most susceptible to shifts in opinion driven by high profile news coverage or political messaging.
Over the coming decade, developments in the life sciences will raise ethical and moral issues that transcend partisan politics. People's concerns are likely to center on several recurring themes, Nisbet says, including whether scientific breakthroughs promote or undermine social progress, whether research gets pursued too cautiously or too quickly, whether moral boundaries are crossed or respected, whether research is seen as serving public or private interests, and the process by which decisions are made.
"Our dysfunctional media system is not capable of adequately addressing these questions. On cable news or via social media almost every complex debate is re-defined in terms of partisan and ideological differences," Nisbet said. "We need to build a new civic infrastructure that enables public learning and input, and the place to start may be in the cities and states where research is taking place."
A good place to start would be avoiding mainstream news stories about science and read Science 2.0. When they aren't writing about miracles vegetables or that every chemical will kill you, they are claiming that science was crippled during The Sequester - without ever asking why, if science is important to the administration, the President listed 10X as many White House employees 'essential' as he did at the National Science Foundation.
You didn't see that factoid in mainstream media, or corporate science media, but you saw it here. You are welcome, America.
Citation: Nisbet M, Markowitz EM (2014) Understanding Public Opinion in Debates over Biomedical Research: Looking beyond Political Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88473. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088473