Post by : Vijayalakshmi Kalynamaran edited by Henderson
When scientific issues that directly affect human lives – climate change, vaccination and nuclear waste- are discussed and decisions have to be made at the political level, there are times when scientists encounter resistance from members of the public who oppose the scientific basis for political action. Why is this? What is it that makes the non-scientist think that the scientific data is wrong, or that we should not take actions based on their findings?
One can think of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge or the inability of most scientists to effectively communicate their work to non-scientists, but recent findings have uncovered another reason, one that may not be as obvious as these two seem to be.
An article published in last year’s Washington Post looks at the reasons why people oppose scientific findings based on studies conducted by several U. S. organizations. One of the main reasons people oppose scientific findings? Because of their personal political views.
When the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of sentiments on the issue of global warming, it revealed that college-educated republicans are less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate science versus democrats or independents.
Research also shows similar findings when raising questions dealing with vaccination or nuclear waste storage. So, for highly controversial subjects as these, it seems that politics comes first. Providing more information to groups does not appear to change their over-arching political views about the subject.
What these findings do provide scientists is information to approach the issue of opposition to science-based findings in a different way. And it means that one of the first steps in presenting science would be to understand the underlying reasons for opposition.
What are the motives behind the opposition? On the surface, a scientific explanation of the effects of global warming should be acceptable to the majority of the public. The consensus espoused by the vast majority of the scientific community, including the IPCC, should be enough to “seal the deal” for real conversations about actions to combat global warming. In a perfect world, these explanations would move the public and policy-makers into action.
But the world is not perfect and the political views of the public, fortified by their legislative leaders, has more to do with their ideas than that of scientific consensus.
So what is the next step? Listen to the public. Yes, scientists should engage the non-scientists in a conversation, in–depth exploratory conversations, not involving debates.
This strategy has shown great promise in dealing with nuclear waste management in Canada. The nuclear management organization engaged the public in a conversation regarding the nuclear waste storage and listened to them for 3 years. The organization also promised that it will not dump waste on the community without its consent. As a consequence, even the critics engaged in the conversation were supportive of the efforts to come up with possible solutions of nuclear waste management.
This is just one example of how engaging the public in a constructive dialogue is the key to understanding. As scientists, policy-makers, and the public learn to be more receptive of messages from each other, there will be many more.