An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827), A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities.

Laplace was expressing a view that was widely held at the time, that we could know everything about the physical universe though observation and the collection of enough information. Quantum physics put paid to this possibility; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the mere act of making a measurement will affect the result. The observer cannot help but directly impact on the result of the experiment.

I was reminded of the shift in world view a couple of weeks ago while taking part in a Nuffield Council on Bioethics roundtable. The event was organised by Nuffield’s Working Party on the Ethical Issues raised by Emerging Biotechnologies to explore the role of public engagement in this fast moving field. In this post I try to work through a few of thoughts that developed as the discussion progressed.

Working Party members covered a lot of ground; however, one question in particular generated lots of debate. To paraphrase, “surely we need to make sure that the people who take part in public engagement processes are properly representative if we are to understand the platonic public view.”

I took this to mean that the questioner was posing the possibility that there is such a thing as ‘The Public Opinion’ on a particular issue; that if only we tried hard enough we could discover this view, hold it up to the light and take a perfectly informed decision.

Just as quantum mechanics and chaos theory have put paid to Laplace’s theory of the clockwork universe, I believe that we know enough already about how public engagement interacts with the policy process to scotch the idea that there is a real, knowable Public Opinion waiting to be discovered.

Some round the table answered this question by challenging the notion of representativeness. What, they asked, are the criteria that should be used to ensure that a sample is representative of a population group as a whole?

Age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status are all used when government wants to assess the representativeness of an engagement process. However, these can’t possibly encapsulate the UK population. What of the role of religion, profession, sexuality and whether or not you have children, for example, in forming a person’s views about a particular issue? Where should you stop in your search for criteria that will ensure that you have a sample that is ‘representative’ of the British public? We call the place where this logic takes us a General Election and it is difficult to claim that this gives a new government a perfect snapshot of what the public think about the UK and its future.

Others went beyond challenging notions of representativeness by noting that the mere act of isolating a group of people and giving them information about an issue immediately makes them unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Echoing Heisenberg, the act of asking for the public to engage with an issue will affect the view of the people in the room.

So, by investing money, time and political resources into a public engagement process, policy makers are saying that a particular issue is more important than others that don’t get the same treatment. This in turn will change Public Opinion, which is never fully formed or immutable. Public Opinion is affected by many things, including whether or not the government has pulled a sample of the population out to deliberate more deeply about the issue.

In the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams parodies scientists who claim their theory will explain everything. The answer to his Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything is forty two. This answer makes it clear that the aliens (or strictly speaking the ‘pan-dimensional beings’) who asked the question didn’t really understand what it was they wanted to know.

I fear that the same is true for people who want to know what a representative sample of the public thinks about an emerging scientific issue. In the time it takes time to get an answer, about 6 – 12 months if it’s done properly, the debate and therefore the question will have changed.

Public engagement can give meaningful answers which can help government to answer real policy questions. However, it can only do so if policy makers are realistic about what they ask and understand the limits of the answers they receive.

Anyone aiming for a public engagement process which will represent ‘The Public View’ will be sorely disappointed. Douglas Adams’ aliens had the option of building something larger and more complex to identify their question.  Lack of money means that this option is not open to government; ensuring realism about what public engagement can do is the only course of action.

Picture Credit: Ars Electronica