Trust Me, I’m a Communicator

Oh, the hell with the Enlightenment project, you know? Screw all that stuff about education and rationality and informed consent and critical thinking. Nah. Too much trouble. We’ve got better things to do, we’ve got tv to watch and sports pages to read and an inner child to get in touch with. Don’t bother us with that rational argument and evidence and peer review crap. Just manipulate us, okay? Just make us feel good, make us feel empowered and participatory and noticed and brimfull of self-esteem, and we’ll do anything you want.

Research over the past decade has begun to question the central importance of knowledge in shaping public opinion about science. Instead of public education programs, argue some social scientists, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making, and that enhance public trust in science-as-an-institution.

Trust. That’s the ticket. And not reasonable, well-founded, justified trust, either. No, that’s sissy stuff, that’s for those pencil-neck geeks in the labs who actually want to understand what they’re trusting and agreeing to. Pedants! No, I just want to trust blindly, thanks, I want to trust anybody who opens the door and invites me to come in and doesn’t mind that I don’t understand one single word of what anyone is saying.

At least, that seems to be the thinking behind this bizarre article. Someone who is getting a PhD in communication wants us to know that public acceptance of science is all about communication (just as hammers want us to know that everything is all about nails). But this is communication of a certain kind, communication as hand-holding and inclusion, communication as rhetoric and public relations, rather than communication as education and elucidation and (cover your ears, children) enlightenment.

Many social scientists, for example, question the heavy emphasis on science literacy. Instead, these researchers insist that the scientific community has been too quick to blame the public. By “problematizing” the public, scientists assume too often that the science they produce is “unproblematic,” even though technologies such as genetic engineering raise a number of valid technical and moral concerns. As a result, when science knowledge and know-how is brought to bear in policy decisions or communicated to the public by scientists, the view from science is often privileged over differing public perspectives about the issue, thereby simply reinforcing any resistance. The “public engagement” perspective asserts that scientific institutions and scientists need to focus less on programs designed to inform the public about the facts of science, and should instead focus on programs that get citizens involved in science-related decision-making, with a goal of promoting public trust.

Okay, but if we’re going to blow off scientific literacy, how are all these ‘citizens’ going to know, how are they going to have the slightest clue, which technologies ‘raise a number of valid technical and moral concerns’ and just exactly what those concerns are and how they should be dealt with? How does ignorance help? Do we have some sort of in-born intuition about which technologies raise valid concerns and which don’t? If so, where does it come from, how does it operate, and above all, how accurate is it? Or are we just talking Yuk-factor again. Or to put it another way, is it really such a brilliant idea to ‘get citizens involved in science-related decision-making, with a goal of promoting public trust’ without educating those citizens first? Guess what! I don’t want ignorant ‘citizens’ – people like me, for example – making ‘science-related’ decisions, even if that heady taste of power does promote their trust. Let’s promote citizens’ trust in some other way. Maybe we could inscribe something about trust on the currency.

[Note: don’t be alarmed if this N and C looks oddly familiar. I first wrote it last month, and it’s one of the many that disappeared during our little server mishap last weekend. But I have a hard copy, so I just ploddingly typed it back in again, because it’s relevant to some matters I want to explore further.]

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