Published on May 10, 2016

Scientific Infantilism

Citizens & science

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

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This recent article in the Telegraph* about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement is an interesting read for many
reasons.

In examining the impact of globalisation on the working class it draws the clear conclusion that we must rebalance our societies away from free-trade at all costs and back towards strengthening Parliamentary democracy. If you want to muse on the rise of more radical left and right wing parties, the phenomenon of Trump and Sanders, and what is driving the debate behind the fast up-coming EU referendum then there is much in there to get your brain cells firing.

But all this isn’t what’s inspired me to write this post. Rather it’s a throwaway line halfway through reflecting on the role that different regulatory regimes can have on scientific and technological innovation and the adoption, or rejection, of scientific advances by the public and legislators.

“Personally, I think the EU’s regulatory philosophy is a key reason why the region has missed the big technological leaps of the last quarter century. But that is not the point. If democracies wish to ban genetically-modified crops out of scientific infantilism, that is their prerogative.”

This perspective, that the rejection of GM crops is somehow the result of a wilful (or illiterate) misunderstanding of the science by the public, is very far from the truth. This is demonstrated amply by the work of Involve and others in Sciencewise and Engage 2020 amongst many other examples.

It’s a perspective that I’ve written about before and it is prevalent within both government and the scientific research community. The logic underlying this perspective is called the deficit model, and runs something like this:

  • the public don’t understand new technology (GM, fracking, Artificial Intelligence, novel flood barrier etc.);
  • as a result they misunderstand the risks the technology poses and don’t fully understand all the obvious benefits it’s going to bring for them and society;
  • we need to help them to understand the risks and benefits;
  • therefore we need to communicate the science better, emphasising the lack of risks and particularly the benefits as simply as possible to combat their lack of understanding; and
  • then they’ll accept the technology and we’ll all gain.

As the continued rejection of GM technology by citizens across the EU, the ongoing impasse over London’s third runway, and the growing local and national resistance to fracking demonstrate, this approach does not work.

In the end the deficit model is motivated both by disdain for the public and fear that they will develop even fiercer resistance to the technology under discussion. Work carried out by Involve and Cambridge University for Research Councils UK (RCUK) clearly shows that this just isn’t the case. Indeed, if the government engaged the public early enough, and was genuinely prepared to listen, then there is much to gain (on both sides) and little to fear.

The research for RCUK characterised the range of views and perspectives of the public to developing scientific research in different contexts, based on a review of 14 Sciencewise deliberative dialogues.

The research found that, in general, citizens hold very nuanced views about the development of new technologies. The public is not anti-science, as the deficit model and quote that motivated this post would suggest. Rather they are realists. In general they are willing to conditionally support the development of new technologies if they meet a range of criteria. The types of factors that the public takes into account when assessing new technologies include wanting to see:

  • equitable distribution of both potential benefits and potential risks;
  • business participation in research as long as society as a whole, rather than business, sets the public research agenda;
  • research focused on clearly articulated societal needs;
  • incremental solutions to societal challenges, rather than placing their trust in highly disruptive and untested solutions;
  • solutions that are more ‘natural’, that is exhibiting a scepticism of the value of high-tech solutions to complex social and environmental problems’;
  • a focus on value for money (both in terms of the research and the envisaged applications of research); and
  • anticipatory regulation of emerging technologies should be considered simultaneously with research and innovation of these technologies.

So it is not a scientifically infantile public that is rejecting GM and other potentially beneficial technologies. Instead it is the result of our elected representatives, civil servants and scientists infantilising the public by rejecting the social and ethical issues that the public brings to bear as it assesses the value of new technologies. This results in the funding of research and development of policy that goes against the grain of public opinion, based as it is on a narrow science based assessment of the technology in question.

Perceiving the lack of trust those in authority have in them, the public therefore refuses to trust the simple messages about risk and benefit that are targeted at them. This in turn can lead, at its most extreme, to the wholesale rejection of technologies as has happened with GM in Europe.

Worse, technologies will be designed and developed which solve the imagined and narrow problems of the technocrats who feel responsible, rather than the real world challenges faced by the very citizens who ultimately fund the development of the technology in the first place.

The message from our work is clear, involving citizens at every stage of the technological innovation process is more likely to lead to innovation that citizens welcome because it enhances their lives and contributes to the vision of a future society more people have been involved in describing and shaping.

* Hat-tip Steve Moore for sharing this.

Image credit: Brick 101, Flickr creative commons

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