Theory of reciprocity

Social scientists and scientists will serve the public best by working together to present their findings, Alice Bell argues

October 27, 2011

How can social scientists and government work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?” is a question that is asked increasingly often in science policy circles. It prompts another: why would social scientists want to be “used” in such a way? To be cynical, if social scientists are seen to be strengthening public trust in scientific evidence, perhaps it allows them to cash in on some of the political capital that the “hard” sciences currently seem to hold. But there are far better reasons than this for social scientists to work with scientists - and social science has much to give scientists too.

The machines, structures and ideas of science allow us to see things much more deeply and more accurately than we can through individual contemplation alone. That is why we invest in it. And yet, by nature of the specialised structure of the beast, insights from science are all too easily kept within the confines of small expert groups.

It is clear that scientists simply saying that they know best is not enough for social or political action - take vaccines, climate change, nutrition, drugs policy (pharmaceutical or otherwise), energy, badger culling, or even - to be retro for a moment - mad cow disease, for example. To have impact, the public must believe the science, not just have it delivered to them. Belief is a social process, and this is where experts on the social can have a powerful role to play.

Many sociologists of science - as well as some areas of social psychology, geography and media studies - have worked for decades to learn more about the ways in which non-scientists may interact with scientific ideas. Why haven’t they solved the problem? It is not easy. It takes time. Moreover, they are not public relations professionals, they are social scientists: they spend a lot of their time asking difficult questions. What is scientific evidence anyway? Such questions are not distractions; they check, improve and refine the debate. Social scientists working in this area are not there simply to help work out the most efficient way to deliver science to the people. They take a long hard look at science, as well as “the public”, and sometimes they deliver uncomfortable messages. This is precisely what makes them so powerful. If science wants public trust, it may have to change itself a bit, or at least be willing to listen to what others have to say. Trust is earned, after all.

Back in 2000, a House of Lords report, Science and Society, took advice from several social scientists and, based on this, called for “a new mood for dialogue”. Some might say that little progress has been made since then. It is still common to hear the complaint that politicians do not listen to scientists, and that scientists may try to “talk truth to power” but find they are ignored because their truths are too uncomfortable. And the case can be made that it is even harder for social scientists to take their “uncomfortable truths” to the power of the scientific establishment. But I do not want to paint a picture of poor, disenfranchised social scientists. Perhaps they, too, could take a leaf out of the natural scientists’ book and try to improve their image slightly: speak without recourse to so much jargon, listen to outside perspectives a bit more, and change themselves a bit.

So my message to social scientists is: ask not just what you can do for science, but also what scientists might do for you. I’d invite any natural scientists listening in to see social critique as a useful part of scientific work too. Everyone in the academy should challenge themselves to consider how the many threads of scholarship can best work together to serve the public good.

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