21 April 2003
How Greenfield got it wrong
The Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution (Ri) and a close ally of the Blair government, has repeatedly expressed her approval of the highly entrepreunerial character of contemporary science. Indeed, Greenfield happily identifies herself as one of those accused of "selling their souls" to the private sector.
Greenfield has also been at the heart of efforts to control how controversial scientific issues, like GM crops and cloning, are communicated to the public - most notably, via the Science Media Centre project housed within the Ri, and her work with the largely industry-backed Social Issues Research Centre'(SIRC), whom Greenfield advises. (See: The New Thought Police http://ngin.tripod.com/thoughtpolice.htm)
In the article below science communication expert Jon Turney responds to a recent article by Greenfield about how the 'widening gulf between the science cognoscenti and Everyone Else' needs to be tackled through the public achieving a far higher level of scientific illiteracy. (See: A new kind of literacy http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/opinion/story/0,12981,933082,00.html)
Turney takes Greenfield to task for her own scientific "illiteracy" - her failure to pay heed to the actual research evidence on these issues.
Turney writes, "if large numbers of people fail to achieve some ideal of scientific literacy this may be because they have got the message that they have no real purchase on scientific decision making, not because they are incapable of mastering technicalities."
He argues we need to empower the public by giving them a genuine say in decision making, because the evidence is that they will then "find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please."
The one problem Turney fails to address, in an otherwise excellent article, is attempts by groups with strong vested interests and agendas, like the RS and the FSA, to manipulate public involvement in order to promote their own agenda, through skeing information, question-setting etc., ie precisely the type of issue that has arisen with the FSA's recent contributions to the UK's public debate.
How Greenfield got it wrong
The Guardian, Thursday April 17, 2003
Last week Susan Greenfield warned of the gulf between the science cognoscenti and Everyone Else. Jon Turney found her argument 'dangerous and unhelpful'.
An ignorant public, fearful in their ignorance, must become scientifically literate. So argues Susan Greenfield, (Life: Opinion, 10.04.03), joining a long line of well-intentioned but not very well-informed scientists. Her argument is as dangerous for scientists as it is unhelpful for promoting the public understanding of science.
Dangerous because if, as she suggests, any criticism of new technologies should be seen as a knee-jerk veto, this will make those with specific reservations about subjects such as Dolly or nanotechnology more likely to broaden their critique to science as a whole. Unhelpful because the - never defined - notion of scientific literacy sets an impossible standard that ignores the realities of public debate and participation. Knowing more science never does any harm, and we will always need scientists, like Greenfield, with a gift for storytelling and the knack of explaining complex research clearly. But when they are tempted to pronounce on science and the public more generally, they should pay heed to research on the matter.
Since the Royal Society first reported on the public understanding of science nearly 20 years ago, we have learned a few things. We should not exaggerate the depth of the work they stem from - the public's scientific understanding is scarcely as firmly grounded as, say, quantum electrodynamics.
For starters, there are few grounds for believing, as Greenfield does, that a former era of mingled pride or scorn for science is giving way to fear. The record shows a long tradition of ambivalence towards some kinds of science (see Frankenstein). Yet contemporary surveys show that most people still think science has done more good than harm. Far from harking back to a mythical Arcadian past, they think science is likely to go on improving life in the future. The only people who ever believed in an anti-science movement were scientists.
More detailed analysis suggests the public has complex attitudes to possibilities like genetic manipulation, depending on things like the genes involved, the kinds of organisms and the purpose of the work. There is evidence that many people have a much higher tolerance of risk and uncertainty than the defenders of controversial technologies credit. They may trust governments, and government scientists, less than they used to to tell the truth about such risks, but addressing that will take us well beyond scientific literacy.
What of scientific literacy, that supposed panacea? It is a misleading term, implying an analogy with an easily tested functional ability, literacy, which simply does not hold. Most attempts at definition end up with piles of elementary facts, some ideas about the nature of science and, perhaps, the relations between science and society. All worthy enough, though it tends to reduce to a list of stuff that scientists think everyone else ought to know and turns discussion of public understanding of science into a consideration of plans for abolishing ignorance. This is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Many folk are indifferent to science, and likely to remain so. Others won't make the effort to surmount barriers of jargon and methodology because they are too busy. If they did, it is still not clear that their opinions about the implications of science would be welcomed. All the survey evidence indicates that levels of scientific literacy are highly resistant to efforts at improvement. But if large numbers of people fail to achieve some ideal of scientific literacy this may be because they have got the message that they have no real purchase on scientific decision making, not because they are incapable of mastering technicalities.
Hence the success of efforts to reverse that message. When members of the public take part in discussions that make them feel they can influence real decisions, lack of scientific knowledge is no problem. A host of experiments with consensus conferences, citizens' juries, deliberative polls, even the Royal Society's new annual Science and Society Forum, all have in common that people are convinced they will be listened to, as well as told what's what scientifically. And they all show that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions. They become scientifically literate, but under conditions in which they decide what they need to know.
In the end, the idea of scientific literacy is part of the problem. Although Greenfield's suggestion that we "imagine a society where to talk about science is as natural as talking about football" will have romantic appeal, it leads to thinking about the situation in exactly the wrong way.
Work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it, and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.
Jon Turney teaches science communication in the department of science and technology studies at University College London