Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mind the Gap

That there is still a huge communication gap between “scientists” and the “public” is well-known. Quite a few scientists continue to lean on the knowledge-deficit model to view people of non-scientific backgrounds, especially activists, as ignorant and unable to grapple with the intricacies of science. Many members of the public, on the other hand, tend to see scientists as people living in cocoons with limited understanding of social, economic, or political contexts. Yet neither scientists nor the public are homogenous groups. Perceptions, often misplaced, have a lot to do with the gap.

This then might be a good time to refer to John Besley and Matthew Nisbet’s forthcoming piece in PUS on ‘How scientists view the public, the media and the political process’. These two scholars analyse two large surveys of scientists in the US and in the UK to see how and why scientists tend to, or are perceived to, look at the public and the media with hostility and contempt. The homogenization of categories is an issue, the authors of the analysis point out. There could, perhaps, be better engagement if future research could “carefully examine how factors such as personal experience, gender, ideology, worldview, selective information sources and other communication processes shape how scientists perceive the public and the media”. This holds true for public perceptions of science and scientists too.

Indeed, the significance of perceptions on how scientists understand the public was clearly evident in the very first article of the inaugural issue of PUS in 1992 by Walter Bodmer and Janice Wilkins. While bemoaning the lack of trust the British public placed in scientists, the authors then said that “it is going to be very difficult to bring science into the lives of unskilled working women”. The authors were, of course, trying to see how science could be made part of the lives of ordinary people. But then ordinary people are not all the same. First of all, “unskilled working women” may well be skilled in areas that are not formally recognised and may not necessarily be ignorant of all things scientific. And second, are they really representative of the entire spectrum of the "non-scientific" public? Indeed, each of us makes sense of science in line with the context within which we live.

As always, we invite comment and discussion.

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