Are we reinventing the wheel when it comes to a public dialogue about nanotechnology? Maybe. But right now we are not even close to having a wheel. Normative calls for “upstream engagement,” often taken up by small, self-selected groups of interested citizens, seem to clash directly with study after study showing a US public that is largely uninformed and uninvolved in public decision making about science.
Uninformed publics, of course, are a phenomenon that comes as no surprise to most social scientists. In fact, study after study in political science has shown that a majority of the US electorate is similarly ignorant about candidate issue stances and the political process. And emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology and stem cell research, are inherently political issues. They get their own sections in federal budget proposals; they receive significant attention from regulators; and they have social and ethical implications that transcend the technical aspects of the science behind them. Given these parallels between emerging technologies and politics, two previous debates are worth paying attention to in the future.
Normative claims vs. empirical evidence
The first of these debates focuses on the disconnect between how we would like audiences to think about scientific issues, and how they think about them in reality. And unfortunately, many outreach efforts are based on normative claims about the former, rather than an empirical understanding of the latter. Successful communication, however, is not a guessing game. Previous research in communication, political science, and psychology provides us with a fairly exhaustive picture of how audiences react to complex information, how different types of information are processed and retained, and how this knowledge can be used to enable an effective public dialogue.
Most recently, for instance, some of our research at the University of Wisconsin (Brossard, Kim, Scheufele, & Lewenstein, forthcoming), showed that information about nanotechnology may be interpreted very differently (or rejected completely) by different audiences, depending on their religious predispositions, ideologies, or other “perceptual filters.” This does not mean that religious citizens are simply more opposed to nanotechnology. Rather, certain sub-publics, even if they are highly knowledgeable, choose to discount that information when forming attitudes about nanotechnology, i.e., these publics are not looking for more scientific information, but rather for a debate about the moral or religious concerns that shape their interpretation of this information.
The ethics of focusing on elite audiences
Relying on research and strategic communication in order to reach uninvolved or hard-to-reach audiences and help them make sense of scientific information, of course, has raised some ethical concerns. Is it appropriate to use strategic communication in order to make scientific issues more accessible to a general public? And should we take advantage of communication tools that can also be used to spread what some would call “misinformation?”
The answer to the first question is a clear yes. Scientists do it all the time. In fact, the more successful communicators are at tailoring their message to specific audiences, the more effectively they can get the scientific side of things heard in public debate. Global warming in the US is a good example. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded about two decades ago as an objective source of information about climate change. But An Inconvenient Truth and the subsequent Nobel Prize did more to raise awareness of the issue and force it on the political agenda than almost 20 years of science-based campaigning by the IPCC.
More importantly, the notion that we should not use all tools at our disposal in order to reach broad audiences is unethical in itself. Many traditional outreach efforts, such as town hall meetings, museum exhibits, or science sections of newspapers, often fail to reach minority populations and citizens of lower socioeconomic status. It is therefore critical to find ways to successfully engage and target these groups using what we know from systematic communication research. In fact, it would be unethical if we did not develop ways of reaching beyond traditional elite audiences.
Data from our most recent Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University surveys show that we are not there yet, and found some significant communication gaps between scientists and the public about the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology (Scheufele et al., 2007). Learning from communication experts and closing these gaps can therefore no longer be an afterthought. It is an urgent necessity.
About Dietram Scheufele
Dietram Scheufele is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin and Elizabeth Corley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.