SO WHAT? WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?
Paradoxes in science communication
Presentation: Joost van Kasteren at EvoKE, Porto 7 February 2017
Surveys show time and time again that people have great trust in science and technology and its practitioners. According to a special Eurobarometer no less than almost 80 per cent of the European people think that science and technology have a positive influence on society. Many other surveys show the same over the years: people have a high trust in science and in scientists to solve the grand societal challenges of our time.
At the same time a large part of the population in industrialised countries dismiss scientific evidence on (controversial) issues like evolution. According to a Gallup poll from 2014, more than 40 per cent of the American people believe that god created humans in their present form 10.000 years ago while around 30 per cent believes in some form of intelligent design. In Europe it is not as bad as in the US, but even in the most progressive country – Iceland – 20 per cent either is not sure or thinks evolution is a false theory.
A survey by Pew and AAAS done at about the same time shows a slightly more optimistic picture for the US: a little over 30 per cent of people believe that humans have existed in the present form since the beginning. Of the 65 per cent that think that humans have evolved, about one third believes that evolution has been guided by a Supreme Being i.e. intelligent design. The difference with the Gallup poll might be explained by the phrasing of the question, suggested Anna Beniermann in her presentation. More specifically the mentioning of god guiding evolution might have influenced the results.
The Pew/AAAS survey also shows that it is not just about evolution that there is a big difference between scientists and other people. Other examples are: Climate change of which half of the people either think it is mainly due to natural causes or not happening at all; vaccines that are seen by more and more people as causing autism and other diseases; nuclear radiation the fear of which has actually caused more victims than the radiation itself; genetically modified crops that are depicted as dangerous Frankenfood and more in general the religious belief in organic agriculture as a panacea to growing food demand.
This peculiar paradox – high trust in science and scientists on the one hand and a refusal to accept scientific evidence on the other hand, has a lot to do with science communication. For quite a long time we thought that wrongly held beliefs about evolution or climate change or whatever other science issue were due to a lack of knowledge. By feeding the people with the unequivocal results of scientific research they would eventually accept the science point of view.
This is the so-called deficit model. It assumes public deficiency and scientific sufficiency. Nancy Baron describes it in her book “Escape from the ivory tower” (2010) as a top-down process in which science fills the knowledge vacuum in the scientifically illiterate public. Scientists act thereby like ‘the sage on the stage’ that delivers a message from the world of science to the public like a priest delivers a message from ‘above’ to its flock. When the natives don’t seem to understand him, the scientist will repeat his message louder and slower, like an American tourist communicating with European natives.
This kind of fire hosing of scientific information might work for scientists and students since they often share the same ideas and values about science and its role in society. But the public does not necessarily share these ideas and values. You might be able to seduce your audience with sensational stories, for instance about the elusive dark matter and the violent black holes in outer space or about the dinosaurs that once roamed the face of the Earth. When you want to communicate less sensational stories people will ask you, “So What? Why should I care about what you are saying? Why are you telling me this?” And when you talk about controversial issues like climate change or vaccination or other subjects that shake up long-held views and beliefs or challenge deep-held values, they might not even ask that but tell you to shut up.
According to Nancy Baron communication by scientists tends to reflect their own values and these values are not necessarily the values shared by their audiences. Even the ‘facts’ that scientists like to present are coloured by theory and are therefor value-laden as Karl Popper already wrote in his “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (1934). That is not a reproach to science (it is just the way it is), but it means that so-called neutral facts can challenge moral values and beliefs of people that are not well versed in that scientific discipline.
For scientists for instance it probably seems perfectly rational to use undue embryo’s for the production of stem cells, but for people that are not active in that discipline it can challenge the value of life itself. They may experience it as a kind of rationality that was ridiculed by Jonathan Swift in his essay ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) in which he argues that it is perfectly rational for poor Irish peasants to pout their one year olds for sale to be eaten by the more well-to-do classes.
So it is not that non-scientists are stupid when they do not accept at face value the evidence that scientists provide them with. Ignoring or even denying scientific evidence seems not to be typically rooted in blanket anti-science attitudes. A key finding is that very few people deny science as a whole. For example someone might blame natural variation (or the Chinese) for climate change or say that scientists have made the whole thing up. But that same person might be just fine with the evidence for the efficacy of vaccines or the safety of genetically modified crops. Or, the other way around: A Greenpeace supporting well-educated liberal might state that the ‘science is settled’ with respect to climate change while at the same time dismissing the scientific evidence for the safety of genetically modified crops.
This has little to do with scientific illiteracy. As Daniel Kahan, a professor of Psychology at Yale University has shown for climate change: the more science-literate people are, the more strongly they hold to their beliefs – even if those beliefs are totally wrong. People tend to shop in science and select the results and the scientific authorities that confirm their views. The more science-literate they are, the more they are able to select the ‘facts’ that confirm their views.
Kahan calls this the paradigm of politically motivated reasoning. Politics nowadays is not only about values like the relative weight of liberty or equality or the justice of progressive taxation. It is also about empirical questions that can be researched and whereby evidence can give the answers. For instance: HPV-vaccination of teenage girls helps reducing cervical cancer, or the relation between CO2 and temperature. This politically motivated reasoning is not about hating science or scientists, but it is about beliefs. People do not weigh up the evidence in a rational way, but they cherry-pick the evidence to prosecute what they want to be true.
This politically motivated reasoning might be reinforced by science communication itself, according to a recently published paper Lisa Scharrer et al. The necessary simplification of information by scientists and science journalists in itself creates the risk that audiences will rely overly strongly on their capability to judge scientific claims. In other words: Emboldened by easy-to-digest science stories in the media, people are more confident to reject what scientists say and go with their gut feeling instead. Moreover they may underestimate that science never deals with absolutes but with ever-increasing likelihoods and that our current knowledge might be overthrown tomorrow.
The question is why people want to believe something that flies in the face of scientific evidence, says Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland. An important driver seems to be their social identity. People want to belong to a group – a tribe – and tend to go along with the crowd, as Dan Kahan noticed for attitudes towards climate change. It can also hold true for evolution: Teenagers in towns in the American heartland tend to believe in evolution if the majority of their friends do and believe in creationism if that’s what the people around them do.
This ‘tribalism’ is often corroborated by a limited amount of narratives, discovered Philip Macnaghten, who is a professor in Technology & International Development at Wageningen University. Together with co-workers he studied the introduction of genetically modified crops in Brazil, Mexico and India and wrote a book about it “Governing agricultural sustainability” (2015). He has also been involved in debates in the United Kingdom on nanotechnology and geo-engineering.
Part of these narratives date back to pre-modern times: Greek mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare or Brothers Grimm. For instance narratives that tell you to be careful for what you wish, cause there is always a downside, like the story of the three wishes. Or the narrative of Pandora’s Box that tells you that knowledge can be dangerous. Another old narrative is that man should not tamper with Mother Nature.
A bit more modern narrative is the one that says that ordinary citizens have no influence because the elite decides everything. Or that science only helps in making the rich become richer and the poor poorer. For anti-vaxxers for instance medical doctors are just puppets on strings that are held by the profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. These narratives represent a value system that might seem rather pre-modern for a scientist but that is very real for many people. Discarding it as irrational and/or emotional increases the wariness of the public towards science and the shiny futures, depicted by scientists and often also science journalists.
This wariness or even scepticism might be an other incentive for people to retreat into their the ‘information bubble’ they share with their peer group, protecting themselves and their ‘tribe’ from information that doesn’t confirm their ideas. In these ‘bubbles’ (look for instance at anti-vaxxer’s sites) scientific evidence to the contrary of their beliefs is not mentioned at all or challenged by discrediting or attacking the source and/or the messengers. Keith Kloor recently wrote an article about the attacks journalists have to endure when writing something that ruffles activist’s feathers. It must be said that it works both ways. Scientists that are for instance challenging some of the ‘facts’ about climate change are met with similar ‘ad hominem’ attacks from the scientific community. An example is Dr. Roger Pielke’s “Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic”.
Democratisation of science
In a recent interview in a Dutch newspaper psychologist Daniel Kahan said that scientists should learn and live with the fact that they are not the sage on the stage anymore and that scientific facts are not decisive in public debate. Post-factualism is a predictable by-product of the same circumstances that have created a climate in which science can blossom. Thanks to the Internet every citizen now has access to information that used to be in the exclusive domain of science and also has the means to publish his or her own interpretation of that information.
We are actually talking about democratization of science. By piecing information together from articles in newspapers and magazines, posts on facebook, tweets and blogs people build up an image about science-related issues like climate change, nuclear energy, cancer research, biodiversity and evolution. And what it means for them. You could say that at an individual level they make up for what Sheila Jasanoff calls the ‘democratic deficit’ of science. Jasanoff is professor in Science & Technology Studies at Harvard University. She addresses this democratic deficit in an article on CRISPR-Cas9 and more in depth in her recently published book ‘The Ethics of Invention’ (2016).
Jasanoff reasons that science and technology not only improve our lives but also shape our ideas, and our expectations of how lives ought to be lived. They govern lives as sure as law does. For law making we have built a whole democratic system of deliberations and checks and balances which aims at including all views and value systems in the process of decision making, but science lacks such a system. That comes home to roost when we have to deal with a far-reaching technologies such as genetic modification and gene editing, because that is the time when society should be able to take stock of alternative imaginable futures and decide which ones are worth pursuing and which ones should be regulated or even prevented.
One can argue that modern societies already have such a system in place – it is called democracy. But if we look at the way modern democracies are dealing with these ‘wicked problems’ like climate change, biodiversity loss or the use of CRISPR-Cas technology, our democratic procedures and institutions seem to fall short. While genetic technologies will have a profound impact on our lives, from how we modify plants and control diseases and even how we change our own genetic code as human beings, we leave decision-making about these issues mostly to scientists and engineers.
The reason is that both the public and its representatives – the politicians – often think that these matters are too complicated for non-scientists. But scientists and engineers are not necessarily the best-suited persons for making those kinds of decisions. When you leave the debate to experts, says Jasanoff, they tend to narrow it down to technically defined, measurable risks – like endangering individual or public health – and possible economic benefits. While suggesting that decisions have been made based on ‘value-free’ evidence, the outcome often reflects the values and views of the experts involved. Other views have been ignored or discarded as emotional response from an uninformed public. But they don’t go away as the debate about recombinant DNA/genetic modification shows that has been going on now for over 40 years. And if we don’t find ways to reduce that ‘democratic deficit’, it will haunt the development and use of CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editing techniques for a long time.
Gene editing techniques can be used for what Kevin Esvelt calls ‘Sculpting Evolution’. Esvelt is an assistant professor of biological engineering at MIT. He wants to combine CRISPR-Cas9 with gene drives, the phenomenon that some genetic elements have a better than fifty per cent – even up to 95 per cent – chance of being inherited. By combining gene drives and gene editing wild populations of for instance insects can be altered in a – for humans – positive way.
As an example he wants to try and wipe out Lyme disease on the island of Nantucket by modifying white-footed mice that are responsible for the spread of this disease. Esvelt has edited the genes in the germline of the mice that produce antibodies against Borrellia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme. Bringing tens of thousands of these modified mice to the island should be sufficient to wipe out the non-modified mouse and with it the bacterium causing Lyme.
Using similar techniques other researchers are trying to wipe out malaria by genetically modifying Anopheles: Either by making female mosquitoes infertile so that the vector itself is eradicated or by preventing Plasmodium to be taken up by the mosquito. Other initiatives aim at eradicating schistosomiasis and other diseases that use insects or small – fast reproducing – mammals as a vector. In agriculture the combination of technologies can be used as the ultimate pesticide wiping out insects, fungi and weeds in an area before they have a chance to develop resistance and possibly even after they have developed resistance. This would make possible the use of pesticides and antibiotics that are now considered obsolete.
Notwithstanding the bright perspectives that are being painted by the scientists involved, the feasibility of sculpting evolution is still highly contested according to a recently published comment in Nature by Ewen Callaway. Cells can sort of re-edit the genes a bit so they are no longer recognised by the gene drive system halting the spread of the modified code. And then there is of course genetic variation within the population. Anopheles mosquitoes for instance, the vector of malaria, dengue and other diseases is extremely diverse, thus severely limiting the possible gene-drive targets. But if these hurdles can be overcome, some serious questions arise.
The National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine address quite a few of them in an extensive report. From a medical-ethical point of view it seems quite acceptable to use this combination of techniques to wipe out Lyme disease, malaria and other debilitating diseases that affect millions of people. A lot of human suffering can be prevented and not many tears will probably be shed when they meet the same fate as the small-pox virus and – almost – the polio virus: kept in jar, in a freezer, behind locked doors in a very secure laboratory.
From the common heritage point of view there are questions about the possible consequences for biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems. Wiping out Anopheles and possibly other plague insects and bacteria might not seem such a big deal ecologically but we are not sure about the possible consequences. The same goes the white-footed mouse on Nantucket. Editing one or more genes might hamper its fitness and hence its survival rate.
This type of questions become all the more urgent, as the combination of gene drive and genetic editing will be used to get rid of invasive species. Last July the government of New Zealand announced a plan to eradicate all invasive predators from the whole country. One of the methods that are being researched is the use of CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt a gene that is vital for reproduction and spread it through the whole population with a gene drive. For instanced by tweaking mitochondrial DNA, the power plant inside the cell, which would seriously hamper the ability of sperm to swim.
Combining CRISPR with gene drives has given humanity a biological tool with the potential to both improve the world (for humans, not for mosquitoes) and endanger it by unintentionally changing ecosystems and with them the ‘life support’ functions they provide us with. These far-reaching consequences make it unavoidable that society should be able to take stock of alternative imaginable futures and decide which ones are worth pursuing and which ones should be regulated or even prevented. But how can we organize an on-going, deliberative and inclusive conversation on these and related issues?
In a recent interview with New Yorker magazine Kevin Esvelt – the ‘sculptor of evolution from MIT – says that the only way to conduct an experiment that could wipe an entire species from the face of the earth is with complete transparency: every e-mail, every grant application, data set and meeting record will be made available for anyone to see. A second criterion is that no experiment will be conducted unless it was approved in advance. Not just by scientists or ethical review committees, but also by the people it would most likely affect. For Esvelt the possible impact of gene drives is such that the research agenda and the way experiments are executed should be a matter of informed consent by the public at large.
What Esvelt proposes seems to be in line with one of the recommendations of the recently published report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) ‘Communicating science effectively: A Research Agenda’. Get better at meaningful engagement between scientists and others to enable an honest, bidirectional dialogue about the promises and pitfalls of science.
There are several ways of doing that. Directly by visiting the people that would most likely be affected, like Esvelt does. Or use blogs, vlogs and social media like facebook and twitter. And of course the classical media (newspapers, magazines, radio and TV). The important thing to be aware that an issue – any issue – can and will be viewed from different perspectives: Not just the science perspective but also the economical, political and ethical perspective.
Acknowledging the existence of different perspective is the first step in setting up an on-going conversation with people about their values and beliefs and hopes for the future. Surveys show time and time again that people have great trust in science and technology and its practitioners. It sounds like a paradox but in a period when scientific expertise is challenged up to the highest level, it is time that scientists put more trust in people and their ability to value the contribution of science and technology to their lives.
Based on lessons learned from the introduction of GM-crops, Stilgoe et al developed the AIRR-concept as a framework for responsible innovation based on a meaningful dialogue with non-scientists. The concept has four dimensions, represented by the letters in the acronym.
A is for Anticipation. It requires that scientists try and look further than their lab bench or computer screen and think about the possible consequences of their research, including the division of benefits and risks for different (groups of) people. That means asking a lot of ‘what….if’-questions;
I is for Inclusion. No top-down introduction of technology but an inclusive and deliberate engagement with a broad range of stakeholders, including the public at large. That is where mass and social media are helpful;
R is for Reflexivity. Holding a mirror up to one’s own activities, commitments and assumptions, being aware of the limits of knowledge and being mindful that a particular framing of an issue may not be universally held;
R is for Responsiveness. Creating or expanding the institutional capacity (science policy, regulatory regime) to change shape or direction of research programs and projects in response to improved anticipation, inclusion and reflexivity.
AIRR was applied in the UK on a plan to release water vapour and eventually sulphate particles with a balloon into the stratosphere to manage solar radiation and reduce the effects of climate change. As a form of geo-engineering the project met with a lot of criticism among scientists and suspicion among ngo’s and the public. In the following debate the AIRR-concept was instrumental in having a reasonable conversation among all stakeholders – including members of the public – about the possible consequences of this type of geo-engineering. Eventually the experiment was postponed and later cancelled, because there are serious doubts about the governability of this type of geo-engineering.