Why I ...think a dialogue with the public will undermine science

April 12, 2002

Bill Durodie Research student in political science New College, Oxford

Last month I attended the first National Forum for Science organised by the Royal Society under the rubric "Do we trust today's scientists?". Later this month I shall be at a "stakeholder dialogue event" to be held at the Chemical Industries Association's offices. Not a week goes by without a conference on this theme, and initiatives promoting science are regularly launched.

"Encouraging dialogue", "involving the public", "building confidence" and establishing a degree of "trust and openness" are phrases regularly used to justify these initiatives. Intriguingly, these terms, largely acquired from the field of therapy, seem to bear little relation to what might be assumed to be the traditional preoccupations of science or industry. They form part of an agenda demanding the greater inclusion of public values in scientific processes.

Scientists, we are told, have lost our confidence and need to engage with the public to re-establish this. This stems in part from a broader debate about social changes, such as growing public disenchantment with scientific progress and increasing risk aversion.

Attempts, over the past decade, to bring about a better public understanding of science and risk one-sidedly assumed a failing by the public to understand the counter-intuitive nature of science. Bringing in lay knowledge, subjective evaluations and perceptions would seem to redress the balance.

But will this sudden flurry of activity pay off? Do our scientists really need to display a greater degree of humility and place more emphasis on the uncertainty of their experiments to regain our trust?

One aspect of this debate often overlooked is how the critics of what are often described as the old elite have come to constitute a new source of authority. Regulators, professional risk managers, ethicists and relatives of the bereaved all form part of a new and bewildering array of groups claiming to represent the best interests of the public. It is ironic that if we have truly lost faith in science, we now seem to place it in those whose views are far harder to verify or hold to account. Labelling their opinions as public values gives them a status that requires no justification. Yet, almost all scientific inquiries and reports today embrace the view that such values should be incorporated into scientific decision-making.

Further, science is not in itself democratic. Lay views tend to focus on the immediate, rather than on a more mediated or critical appreciation of available evidence. Science requires rather more diligence and detachment than sincerity and inclusion. The public should demand a higher standard of scientific debate among politicians. But such debate cannot be resolved through a so-called dialogue with the public.

None of this is to say that science is somehow value-free. The emphasis on the impact of science on society is one-sided. Science, as well as transforming society, is itself a product of it. Part of the role of scientists is to pass judgement on each other's work, identifying where such values are a hindrance to further development. Demanding the inclusion of more values would seem a perverse direction to be moving in.

Unfortunately, it would appear that many in the scientific establishment have abdicated their responsibility to judge and be criticised. Far from relieving them from pressure, this acquiescence can only further discredit and demoralise their profession. By pandering to demands for more caution and self-limitation they have, rather than refuting perceptions, set themselves against the very motive force of science - a desire to explore and experiment.

This article is taken from a paper presented at the "Demoralisation: morality, authority and power" conference held at Cardiff University April 4-6 (www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/news/dmap.html) 'The public should demand a higher standard of scientific debate among politicians. But such debate cannot be resolved through a so-called dialogue with the public'

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