Even though scientists are amongst Britain’s most trusted professionals, many people are sceptical about science and of scientific facts. Should this affect the way we engage the public in debates about science and society? 

A few months into 2005, I received a long email explaining that the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami was caused by man’s spiritual decline and disregard for the health of mother Earth. Apparently, our sucking of oil from the earth, disregard for the health of the atmosphere and general misuse of the environment had created a spiritual imbalance that led to the earth’s plates to moving and causing the tsunami.

I don’t still have the email and in fact deleted it before I got anywhere near to the end of it. With the horrific images fresh in my mind, the scientist in me was incensed by what I saw as the lack of logic or scientifically rational cause and effect. However, it is an email that has stuck in my mind because of the emotional reaction it caused in me.

Last week I bought myself a New Scientist, one of the little guilty pleasures I allow myself on work trips. Flipping it open I experienced an increasingly uncomfortable feeling as I read an article titled, Earth Shattering (link to article behind paywall here). The first sentence said,

“Few things are more likely to prompt instant ridicule from climate sceptics than the idea that there might be a link between global warming and geological disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.”

The article went on to lay out the evidence that global warming could lead to: more frequent landslides (through changes in soil temperature); earthquakes (through melting ice and snow changing the distribution of water over, and therefore pressure on, techtonic plates); and even tsunamis (ditto).

The article made sense to me, it had clear theoretical explanations of cause and effect, some data to back-up the theory and, critically, testable hypotheses about what might happen in the future if this is true.

My uncomfortable feeling came from my acknowledgement that, on one level at least, both the email and the article were saying the same thing; humankind’s relationship to nature and the resulting changes to weather could cause geological changes and even disasters. This was something I’d dismissed out of hand in 2005, and yet was willing to swallow hook, line and sinker only a few years later.

It’s obvious what was happening of course; the email lay outside my frame of reference and belief system, while the New Scientist article sat firmly within my frame and the tradition in which I was educated.

However, the contrast between my acceptance of the article and my strong, emotional reaction to the email got me thinking. People with experience of trying to influence policy-making will tell you that the messenger is as important as the message itself. If someone who isn’t trusted delivers an idea to a government department or politician it is likely to be ignored regardless of the evidence backing it up, or the validity of the arguments employed.

It was the realisation that there isn’t any good reason why this should be any different for citizens that got me thinking about the implications of this for public engagement, particularly science and society issues. There is a prevailing methodology for the big, set-piece, (often government sponsored) public engagement processes, which are used to draw citizens into deeper dialogue about issues such as synthetic biology, geoengineering or nanotechnology. This methodology establishes ‘rational’ spaces where scientists, and sometimes policy-makers, impart information to citizens, answer questions and allow deliberation about the implications of a particular technology for society.

This type of set-up works for me, given my background and strong grounding in the scientific methodology. It clearly works for all those involved in commissioning and delivering such engagement processes too. But do we know how well it really works when compared to other ways that we might bring the public into the debate?

On one level there may not be too much of a problem. Ipsos MORI’s veracity index asks “…would you tell me if you generally trust [these professions] to tell the truth, or not?” Scientists fall pretty consistently in the top five most trusted professions, trusted by over 2/3rds of respondents.

However, that leaves something like 20 million Britons who don’t trust scientists to tell the truth. In a room of 100 citizens taking part in a typical public dialogue of the type I highlight above, this would equate to 33 people not trusting what they were hearing. In addition, science and technology dialogues are normally about issues that are, or have the potential to be, contentious. The MORI data isn’t disaggregated and I wonder how true the overall finding is of climate scientists, or those working on genetically modified food crops, for example?

If there is even a possibility that 1/3rd of the people who take part in a typical dialogue struggle with what they are hearing, then I think this raises questions about the dialogue process itself. It may be that this isn’t true and there is no problem with trust in the room. However, this could just as easily be because those who are more likely to doubt scientists are also more likely to self-select out at the recruitment stage. It is unlikely that all those who distrust scientists also fall naturally into one of the categories usually used to ensure that such dialogues are representative.

What I’m not arguing for here is some post-modern morass where there is no truth except what people believe. What I am questioning is whether we know enough about the effects of how dialogues are typically run on the reaction of the public taking part. Shouldn’t we think more creatively about how we run such processes, testing different methodologies against one another to see which works best for the public? Do we even have to consider more carefully who we mean when we talk about the ‘public’? As a result, should we disaggregate the category more carefully so that we make sure we present information and engage different types of public in ways that make sense to them rather than just to us?

While my emotional reaction wouldn’t have led me to shooting the author of the email, I am going to try to take more care in thinking about who the messenger should be in future.

Photo credit: daexus