Posted by: Dan | April 7, 2009

A Social Contract

Seeing as blogging is slow for me lately, here’s a relatively timeless old blog entry of mine for re-posting. Enjoy

Following my Habits of Mind post, a reader suggested an article titled Winning Greater Influence for Science for further reading. It’s quite a good read, focusing on the lost influence of scientists in the public domain and how to fix the broken “social contract” between scientists and the public.

We need to understand the causes of the divide between science and society and to explore ways of narrowing the gap so that the voice of science can exert a more direct and constructive influence on the policy decisions that shape our future.

First, Yankelovich goes through a handful of undeniable observations about today’s political climate:

  1. Scientists and the rest of society operate out of vastly different worldviews, especially in relation to assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and how to deal with it.
  2. Decisionmakers rarely have the luxury of waiting for verifiable answers to their questions, and when they do, almost never go to the trouble and cost of developing them.
  3. Scientists need techniques for framing policy options that give the proper weight to their scientific content in relation to nonscientific variables and political realities.

Yankelovich also lists three superficial symptoms of the divide between science and the public:

  • Semantic misunderstandings about the word “theory.”
  • Media insistence on presenting “both sides.”
  • Science’s assumption that scientific illiteracy is the major obstacle.

It’s that last point on scientific (il)literacy that intrigues me – afterall, I’m already on record describing science literacy as a problem. Yankelovich claims that “this assumption conveniently absolves science of the need to examine the way in which its own practices contribute to the gap and allows science to maintain its position of intellectual and moral superiority.”

Yet many scientists would prefer to remain cloistered away in their labs and offices, doing their research, free of any obligation to disseminate their knowledge to the public for the good of society.

Further, Yankelovich elaborates on something else I’d not spent much thought on, “The accelerating requirement that knowledge be scientific“:

Most public policy decisions must rely on ways of knowing–including judgment, insight, experience, history, scholarship, and analogies–that do not meet the gold standard of scientific verification. Our society lacks a clear understanding of the strengths and limitations of nonscientific ways of knowing, how to discriminate among them, and how they are best used in conjunction with scientific knowledge. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, our civilization has presupposed a hierarchy of knowledge, but never before have forms of nonscientific knowledge been so problematic and devalued, even though they remain the mainstay of policy and of everyday life.

That’s an interesting point of view. Certainly, there are other valid forms of knowledge than the “gold standard” of science, and I fully admit that myself (and many other scientists, probably) fall into the trap of devaluing non-scientific knowledge, albeit unconsciously. How do we address this disparity?

Arguably the greater problem, however, is the colliding political and scientific realities that Yankelovich refers to: “When political and scientific imperatives collide, science is usually the loser.” He claims that this chasm between political and scientific realities can be overcome, and describes two core principles, and two strategies, to bridge this divide.

In principle, Yankelovich describes,

  1. The initiative to bridge the gap must come primarily from the scientists’ side rather than the policymakers’ side, for reasons both of motivation and of substance; and
  2. that scientists’ efforts must not be confined to engaging policy elites but must extend to the general public as well.

Now, this sounds an awful lot like what I mean when I say “scientists need to work together with educators and the public to raise science literacy,” so I think that there are some semantic differences going on between what Yankelovich and I mean when we talk about science literacy.

More concretely, Yankelovich describes two strategies for bridging the divide: “one for repairing lost influence at the top of the policy hierarchy and the other for engaging the public on important science-laden issues”:

  1. “To regain influence at the top, reposition and reframe the science advisory function, shifting from the narrow role of science specialist to the broader role of framer of policy options.”

    “By drawing on [relevant nonscientific] perspectives, fully acknowledging the merits of each and framing policy options accordingly, the policy option presentation technique gives scientists a way to upgrade their role while also performing the specialists’ function. Even more, it provides a politically acceptable vehicle for advocacy: Those who control the option-framing process can make the strongest possible case for their own point of view, provided that they are willing and able to do full justice to points of view with which they may personally disagree.”

  2. “To better engage the public, shift from the goal of “science literacy” to the goal of reaching sound “public judgment” on scientific issues, and use specialized forms of dialogue to advance this goal. Although framing options for top-level decisionmakers is a necessary condition for winning greater influence, it is not sufficient. Important policy changes also require broad-based public support. At present, though, the voters are largely disengaged, reluctantly abandoning decisions that affect their lives to experts they do not trust. Scientists hold the key to breaking the deadlock, at least on science-laden issues. But to do so, they need to rethink the goals and strategies of public engagement.””Citizens do not need to be second-hand scientists. But they do need to be able to make sound judgments about science policy choices…”

Again, I think the second strategy echoes what I describe as raising science literacy and reinforcing Habits of Mind (more likely, in fact, is the need for all of us to refine what we mean by these goals, and advancing movement towards achieving those goals).

In the concluding sections, Yankelovich describes in rather vague terms the path with which we can bridge this gap, using Global Warming as a model example. And in the past several years, scientists have taken large steps to raise advocacy and awareness of such issues, including the establishment of institutions to combat what Chris Mooney describes as the War on Science (think the Union of Concerned Scientists and similar NGOs, and the new career paths that many scientists are taking as bridge builders and policy formulators, for example).

And Yankelovich ends on an optimistic and idealistic note that I share:

Many scientists will probably prefer to keep their focus on their scientific work, and others will find shifting back and forth between their own worldview and that of the larger society not worth the effort. But with even a small, committed cadre of high-level scientific thinkers, I believe that science can once again make itself heard about the issues that affect our collective future, both at the policymaker level and the level of public discourse. In doing so, they will be making an innovative contribution to our society. Indeed, if we are to avoid disaster, we have no choice.



  1. I don’t consider myself scientifically illiterate altho my fields are more in the area of the arts (education, philosophy, psychology, history). The reason I consider myself moderately literate in understanding the natural world is that I am a reader, or if you will, READER. Junk mail and cereal boxes when nothing else is at hand :).

    My problem with research scientists is their overwhelming ego. Each feels that they and only they are correct in their conclusions. This of course leads to bitter battles between them and this is played out on the public stage. (Of course from my study of history this attitude has alwsay prevailed.)

    Global Warming is the perfect example of this scientific family fued. For every article proclaiming global warming is fact there is another proclaiming the opposite, and with equal vehemence.

    Not being a scientist, but just a humble lover of the outdoors and nature I have watch my beautiful Smoky Mountains dying from acid rain. Acid rain caused by the use of filthy fossil fuels–primarily coal.

    Witnessed whole mountain tops stripped off and dumped in river valleys to get to King Coal in my home state of West Virginia. The entire country side is destroyed and the pollution is carried for hundreds of miles down stream from these operations.

    I also had the misfortune to grow up in the Northern Ohio Valley steel and mining country. I lived with and breathed the stench and lung clogging pollutants. I watched old men die of Black Lung and babies die of illnesses with many names but all from the single source: use of filthy fossil fuels.

    This is the one thing President Obama is doing that I applaude. He is determined to turn the United States from oil and coal and to solar, wind, ocean currents and biofuels.

    I am not too sure about the use of biofuels, because I see this as taking too much of much needed food producing acreage.

    I am totally sold on solar as I have had personal experience with it as a source of hot water for our home and as a power source for our RV. Have also read much on wind turbines and ocean currents using turbines. Both of these seem feasible and we have the technology to implement them at a cost no greater than that of obtaining fossil fuels.

    Now if the scientist would only shut up and stop fighting each other on whether or not there is such a thing as global warming maybe the Al Gores of the world can scare the leaders into doing something before our planet is beyond the point of no return for your birds and my trees. BB

  2. Wish you had an edit on the comments as I am dyslexic and often don’t see my mistakes until I post the comment.
    Correction: family feud, always andd please just forgive any more. OK? BB

  3. Interesting perspective on how scientists appear from the outside looking in.

    One point though before I let the rest stand – there really aren’t any scientists feuding over global warming (oh, there are some with PhDs and other degrees, some in relevant fields but most not, who disagree, but nothing in the research literature that scientists actually go by). This is a major problem, but not one that scientists are at the root of. As with the Big Tobacco era of denying that cigarettes cause cancer, industrialists would have you believe that burning fossil fuels doesn’t lead to a greenhouse effect, to pad their wallets.


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