What should the scientific community do when conflicts erupt between scientists and members of the public, as is beginning to occur over geoengineering? A steady stream of rifts has arisen over the years, on topics ranging from climate change and evolution to vaccination and genetically modified foods. In the future, as scientific and technological advances have an increasingly profound influence on policy and society, that stream may become a torrent. (…)
One response to such offenses is simply to dismiss the public, to paint average Americans as stupid, scientifically illiterate, or emotional. During the 1970s, Nobel laureate James Watson famously dubbed those hoping to constrain recombinant DNA research as “kooks,” “incompetents,” and “shits.” Another more recent example of such lashing out was captured in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos by scientist-filmmaker Randy Olson. Olson gathered a group of scientists around a poker table to talk about the anti-evolutionist “intelligent design” movement and how to respond to it. One offered the following strategy for addressing the creationists: “I think people have to stand up and say, you know, you’re an idiot.” (…)
Yet there is another possibility: perhaps scientists misunderstand the public and fail to connect in part because of their own quirks, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour. Indeed, there is no guarantee that increasing scientific literacy among the public would change core responses on contested scientific issues, for those responses are rarely conditioned by purely scientific considerations. Scientists and non-scientists often have very different perceptions of risk, ways of bestowing their trust, and means of judging the credibility of information sources. Moreover, members of the public strain their responses to scientific controversies through their ethics or value systems, as well as through their political or ideological outlooks—which regularly trump calm, dispassionate scientific reasoning.