Let’s chill out about discussing science, argues Tracey Brown
The academic commentary about public engagement in science is too controlling. This autumn’s publication of a BIS review of science and society initiatives is a good moment to end the superior tone of academic discourse about knowledge versus consultation and chill out about discussing science.
Sure, argue about the best ways and which publics. If you have experience of doing it, you cannot help but find some attempts to discuss science with the public crass, or founded on odd ideas. I have noticed that more than a few scientists who moan about cod science do a good line in cod sociology about why people don’t like technologies. I have, too often, struggled to retain the will to live when chairing question sessions at events about science controversies, as the third questioner seizes the microphone and begins, ‘I think it all goes back to the schools...’
But ultimately, the diversity of what people want to achieve with engagement and what others want from it means that there is no one true path. There is not a rule about how much giving of information and how much consulting must happen in any science engagement exercise. It is not a Really Bad Thing if, say, paediatrician and immunology expert Paul Offit tells people what he knows about vaccines, forcefully. That might be a good way to challenge health writers, but not effective for a health visitor trying to increase vaccine uptake.
A small kerfuffle broke out over the interpretation of the Wellcome Trust Monitor survey earlier this year. The survey indicated that the public often doesn’t want to be involved in decisions, said Hannah Baker of Wellcome in a Guardian commentary, and perhaps we are not paying enough attention to the importance of science education.
While the knowledge deficit model might be discredited, surely that’s not the same as saying that knowledge doesn’t matter? Simon Lock and Melanie Smallman of University College London didn’t agree and pointed to the limited role of evidence in the way people respond to GM, for example.
That some attempts to tackle discussions such as organ retention or vaccines have been ineffective does not mean that the idea of imparting knowledge is wrong. It depends on what you are trying to achieve and on what people are asking from you. Sometimes people want expertise, sometimes they need to hear arguments against a news article on the HPV vaccine, sometimes they want accountability for how a decision has been reached, and sometimes they want to have a say.
Ideas about science communication have just become too precious, when really there is no one size fits all response to questions before us which involve evidence and decisions. The science communication experts and academics have been advising government and big institutions for years about engagement (or rather telling them off), but their slide shows about others’ deficiencies are still a lot longer than those about their own successes.
Facts and information sometimes change things and sometimes they don’t. Just because knowledge – or lack of it – doesn’t account for everything people think, doesn’t mean you’re wrong to tell people what you know. After all, we as a society choose to pay for expertise, in the form of the education and research that give rise to it. It makes a mockery of democratic debate not to use it. And we should use knowledge, and argue about it, any way we like.