Experts Challenge the "Dangerous Divide" Claims about Science in America
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
As I noted when the Pew science survey was released last month, there was a disturbing tendency among some bloggers and commentators to seize upon the findings as yet more evidence of a "dangerous divide," a "widening disconnect," and a "gulf" between scientists and the public. I summarized some of the problems with this narrative at the time as did others.
In a follow up article at The Scientist titled "Are Scientists Really Out of Touch?," several researchers who have conducted similar surveys of scientists and the public have noted their own reservations about the "dangerous divide" claims. As these researchers warn, it is never good to jump to dramatic conclusions without taking into account the cumulative research and expert views in an area:
In a recent AAAS/Pew survey , one in five U.S. scientists named the chronic difficulties  in communicating with and educating lay audiences as one of the greatest U.S. scientific failures of the past 20 years. The real surprise, however, was that scientists do not seem too eager to find a solution -- at least not according to the AAAS/Pew data . Only about two in five AAAS scientists reported that they often talk to non-scientists about findings from their research, and only 3% often talk to reporters.
But are things really that bad? As part of two independent research teams, we interviewed nationally representative samples of scientific experts in nanotechnology [4, 5], stem cell research and epidemiology . Data from these surveys suggest much more optimistic views among scientists about interactions with journalists, mass media, and lay audiences. At least two important differences in survey technique may explain these contrasting findings....
The authors then go on to summarize these important sample and question wording implications. As they conclude:
These more positive attitudes toward public communication across disciplines also translate into scientists' openness to connect with lay audiences. Data from our nanotechnology survey shows that more than half of all scientists "strongly" or "somewhat" agree that "[s]cientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work." And scientists believe that communication can make a difference, with more than 80% in the nano and the biomedical surveys disagreeing that "[c]ommunicating with the public does not affect public attitudes toward science." Judged against scientific norms and priorities, media coverage of science will always be incomplete and -- at times -- flawed. But scientists, it seems, are open to a dialogue.
Overall, we do not mean to imply that data such as the recent AAAS survey are not helpful in guiding our thinking about the future of science communication. But data that potentially overstate the problem could drive a wedge between already divided groups and discourage both sides from building bridges. We continue to be convinced these that bridges have to be built, and -- based on expert surveys across disciplines and continents -- can be built.