This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).
These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)
Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come. Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.
These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?
One of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?
My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach.
Beliefs: Case study of gender inequality and the environmental movement
In social science, the concept of belief describes a statement that people think is either true or false. Beliefs are deep rooted because they evolve from early socialisation. They are maintained tacitly through everyday interactions with our primary social networks like family, religious communities, and through close friendships with people from the same socio-economic backgrounds. Beliefs are hard (though not impossible) to change because there is a strong motivation to protect what we believe. Beliefs are strongly tied to personal identities, culture and lifestyle. Beliefs are harder to change in a short frame time because they’re interconnected to structures of power and inequality. Chipping away at one belief means re-evaluating all beliefs we hold about what is “true,” “natural,” and “normal.”
Beliefs are hard to justify objectively because they represent the social scaffolding of all we take for granted.
In this meaning, beliefs represent the status quo of what we’re willing to accept. If we ask people: Why do you think your belief is correct? They’ll often answer on “gut instinct” or they’ll defer to common sense. This is true because everyone knows it! For many people, belief is either an act of faith that does not need scientific proof, or otherwise, people find evidence for their beliefs everywhere they look, even though this does not include looking to empirical data. In many cases, however, people will also refer to authoritative texts to back up their beliefs, like religious teachings or news reports. This is not science, obviously.
The key to understanding why beliefs are hard to shift comes down to one question: Who benefits from this belief? For example, when we ask: Are men and women fundamentally different? Someone who benefits from patriarchy and doesn’t want to lose their gender privilege will say: “Of course, men and women are different, look around you! Women act this way and they’re from Venus; men act that way and they’re from Mars.” A social scientist will bring up examples from other cultures where gender is organised differently. Still, the other person will see these examples as exceptions to their rules about gender.
Gender differences are used to justify inequality: women are more caring, so they’re better at raising babies; men are more rational, so they make better leaders. To think otherwise means restructuring our labour arrangements at home and work; it means rethinking social policy about how we remunerate jobs; it means changing the balance of power in the law, in education, in the media and so on.
We know from research such as Raeywn Connell’s work, that men and women involved in the Green movement are largely committed to gender equality and that younger environmentalists are more likely to practice equality in private (so it’s more than just a “lip service” commitment to equality). This is because the environmental movement has close ties with feminist movements. Also environmentalists believe that climate change action requires the full participation of everyone in society. This fundamentally means inclusion of all genders. (That’s not to say the Green movement is perfectly equal, it’s just that equality is a central belief.) Active members of the Green movement are relatively highly educated and specifically they are more likely to have exposure to social justice education. These social influences shape their belief.
Again, it is not a perfectly equal playing field. Middle and upper class people have more resources to invest in social justice movements. This means middle and upper class people have higher resources to live Green lifestyles. There are material reasons why some people are more readily adaptable to scientific arguments about climate change. You don’t have to be well off to believe in climate change science, but it is a form of social privilege to be able to switch to these belief systems and incorporate them into everyday life practices.
When people don’t believe scientists on climate change or genetically modified (GM) foods or vaccinations, it comes down to their assessment of: What does this mean for me? What life changes are required of me? How does this scientific knowledge undermine my place in the world? In other words: how does this science support or threaten my values?
Values: Case study of the adoption and resistance of GM foods
Values are linked to one’s sense of morality. Where belief is something maintained at the individual level through agents of socialisation, values are more easily distinguished through their connection to broader social interests. Values relate to the standards of what individuals perceive to be “good” or “bad” in direct reaction to what our society deems to be “good” or “bad.” Values are shaped by cultural institutions like education and religion. Societies depend on shared values to maintain social order, which is why many societal values are often enshrined in law. Traditional societies appeal to values of authority like religion or authoritarian leadership. Judeo-Christian capitalist societies appeal to values of individualism and economic rationalism. Social democratic societies are more secular and informed by humanist values. All of these underlying value systems impact on public values of science.
Still, values are contested, depending on whose social interest is being served.
Take for example GM foods. In Sweden, public consultation and scientific input is framed around best interests for public good. (Not without controversy.) Some Scandinavian laws will allow GM food to be grown in controlled areas because it benefits their national economy, but they won’t support imported GM foods. In countries like Peru, GM foods have been banned for 10 years because they mostly come from imported products. These products are deemed to be unsafe. At the same time, GM foods conflict with class struggles of the highly political Indigenous farming movement. Peru has a long history of mistreating Indigenous populations, but the national identity is firmly locked to agrarian innovation that stretches back to the Incan empire. Peru has also joined other Latin nations to wind down trade with the USA and increase trade with Asian nations. Resistance to GM foods serves a dual economic and political purpose of resisting cultural imperialism and supporting Indigenous farming movements. (Though Indigenous environmental protests are ignored in other areas, such mineral resources and specifically big oil.) The key here is the political economy of Peru (and Latin America more broadly) is informed by socialist values that resist capitalist interests. GM foods have publicly been positioned as part of this capitalist incursion.
In the USA the GMO public debate has been framed around commercial interests. This stems back to early industrial era and the plant patent act of 1930. The commercialisation of American agriculture goes back to the early 19th century, where many farming communities were self-sufficient. By the early 1920s differentiated crop varieties were already established. Trade associations arose as mass production started. With more money at stake, legislation steps in to formalise the production of seeds. Historical evidence shows that the law struggled to weigh up the commercial lobbying of large agricultural organisations (specifically the American Association of Nurserymen) versus the rights of small farmers. At this time, when economic rationalism was beginning to set precedents, commercial interests won out over collective interests. This isn’t simply a case of greed of corporations, this is about the political economy of early American society. American values were firmly tied to Protestant beliefs (sociologist Max Weber has detailed this thoroughly). In early American capitalism, it was God’s will that people should work hard and make as much money as possible, to ensure their place in heaven. The 1930 plant patent was fought heavily on moral and social grounds.
Today, these tensions around values and commercial interests often feature in GM food debates (see for example various highly emotive comments to our Science on Google+ Community). Invariably, people bring up Monsanto. I’m not a fan of Monsanto. In fact, I see them operating as a neo-colonialist corporate machine. Then again, I can accept that the practices of one entity do not nullify the potential benefits of GM foods altogether. I want to learn even more about the science and debate the findings robustly. Anti-science members of the public, however, cannot accept that scientific methodology of GM foods can be separated from commercial interests to help feed underprivileged people.
This is glaringly obvious when we have scientists discuss the not-for-profit scientific collective that have developed Golden Rice, a type of rice that is engineered to be rich in Vitamin A. In our Science community, we have people dismissing the potential benefits of Golden Rice, because they don’t believe that the science can remain commercially impartial. These people see only conspiracy and greed behind the motivations of scientists. Otherwise people argue that this technology is unsafe, though it’s been tested (though not without controversy over informed consent). People also get very angry that Golden Rice doesn’t address the social causes of poverty, such as corruption and social inequality. Golden Rice doesn’t claim to solve world poverty; it aims to address Vitamin A deficiency in developing regions.
People think that science should solve all the world’s problems, when in reality we tackle one aspect of one specific problem at a time.
Debates about GM foods are, in fact, a cultural battle over value systems. Are capitalist nations like America still deeply invested in individualistic values or can we move towards collective action? Scientists make the case that some GM food technologies represent a safe, relatively inexpensive way to address hunger. In order to accept this argument, the public needs to be able to trust that the science isn’t governed by commercial entities. How you see this depends on your values: are GM foods “good” or “bad”? A vocal section of the public is distrustful of science on GM foods. They think GM foods are bad. As I’ve shown this is both the outcome of history, culture and social changes. Different countries have different positions which influence whether people largely celebrate, decry or feel anxious about GM science.
In these cases, the science is used to draw very different conclusions. GMOs are either for or against the national interest. GMOs either support social change or they impede progress. Attitudes towards the science depends on the cultural and political interests of different social groups. What’s “good” or “bad” about GM foods depends on whose point of view best aligns with societal values.
Attitudes: Case study on perceptions of risk and trust
Attitudes are relatively stable system of ideas that allow people to evaluate our experiences. This includes objects, situations, facts, social issues and other social processes. While attitudes are relatively stable, they are more superficial than beliefs and less normative than values. Attitudes can be changed more easily than beliefs. Sometimes people will say one thing, especially if it’s socially desirable to do so, but in private they may not adhere to that attitude. Someone can say they support equality but they may not practice it at home. Often times, however, people are not always aware that their attitudes are contradictory.
In contrast to values, which are culturally defined, attitudes are interpersonal. We are constantly interpreting other people in relation to the situation we find ourselves in. Language, motives, emotions and relationships can change attitudes over time. Social context also matters: cultural beliefs and values can influence whether or not attitudes change.
Attitudes about science are shaped by many societal processes, such as education, class, ethnicity and so on. Yet the social science literature has overwhelmingly shown that attitudes towards science are connected to:
- Whether or not people are willing to accept the risks associated with a particular scientific issue; and
- Whether or not people trust scientists in general.
Trust is a multi-dimensional concept; that is to say, it is made up of many different characteristics and these change with respect to a given social group in a particular time and place. Psychologist Roderick Kramer provides an extensive review of the empirical research on trust (he covers studies from the 1950s to 1999). At the interpersonal level, we develop trust in another person based on a belief that they have an interest to live up to our expectations. They care about us, they need us, they have a legal or moral obligation to help us. Among individuals, trust is about behaviour and reciprocity: I’ve proven you can trust me because I have not let you down and because we both understand that our trust goes both ways.
Some individuals can be generally considered to be “high trusters” and others “low trusters,” depending on their personal biographies; their experiences with institutions of authority; and other socio-cultural factors. People who are generally predisposed to the idea of trust are more likely to be open to collective social action. The reverse is true of people with low trust.
While Kramer doesn’t make this connection, low trust and commitment to social action impact on the public’s trust in science. If I hold a strong belief about the world and science contradicts my view, I will need a high degree of trust in order to be open to the information. If I take on board this scientific view, I will be forced to act on it. This means changing the social order that benefits me currently. That’s a big investment. If I have high trust in another oppositional social institution like religion or my community leader who is supporting my current belief system, why should I trust science?
At the societal level, trust doesn’t always work in relation to direct interpersonal engagement. Kramer shows how some people in certain circumstances will trust authority figures based on their history. That is: I trust this organisation because they have a strong reputation and other big players endorse them. Others will trust due to someone’s category of authority (science, politics), their role (medical practitioner, priest), or a “system of expertise” (bureaucratic management).
People who trust an authority figure or an organisation’s motives are more likely to accept outcomes, even if they are negative. Trust will matter more when people have a lot to lose, such as when an outcome is unfavourable. For example, when science will lead to social change or some new technological impact that I don’t want because it threatens my beliefs, livelihood, culture, identity or lifestyle – this requires high trust.
Research shows that public trust in social institutions has long been in decline. In America, civic trust was high just after WWII due to the nature of the war, its impact on the economy and other social changes. Public trust declined in the late-1960s due to the Vietnam war and other conservative economic and political changes. Public trust is generally at half the rate it was in the mid-1960s for federal government, universities, medial institutions and the media. Specific incidents become exemplars for more distrust, such as political scandals. Progress in technology is also related to higher distrust. People who live in relatively affluent, technologically advanced societies are more likely to distrust science. Up until the mid-1990s, the media was people’s main information source, but it was also the most distrusted social institution. The reverse was true of scientists: university researchers were trusted as experts, but people were less likely to be listening to them because they didn’t have much exposure to scientists.
In some cases, we might think that distrust in science is about lack of knowledge. Being familiar with a person or institution can help to engender trust, but not always. Again, it comes down to beliefs, values and attitudes.
People who are highly knowledgeable on a particular area such as politics are more likely to spend a lot of time taking in and responding to world views that contradict their own. These people have an information bias that they do not readily recognise. They will see themselves as rational and impartial. They see that they are sceptics ready to weigh up evidence as it comes to hand. In fact, they spend more emotional energy arguing against conflicting information because these clash with their personal world views. They argue passionately because their attitudes align with their beliefs and attitudes.
Conversely, people who know little about a topic are more likely to accept new information to be true or unbiased, but they show a weak commitment to defending this new information. Paradoxically, if people don’t feel personally invested on a social issue, they will not act. This suggests that more information or education on a topic alone is not enough to improve how the public engages in science or democratic processes.
Bluntly put, more public discussion on science alone is unlikely to convince people to productively engage in scientific discussions.
Even amongst scientists, trust in science and risk perception is affected by sociological processes. A 1999 study of the members from the British Toxicological Society finds that women were more likely to have higher risk perceptions for various social issues in comparison to men. This ranged from smoking, to car accidents, AIDS, and climate change. Looking deeper, it was a specific sub-set of White men who were more likely to perceive a low risk for these social issues; those with postgraduate qualifications who earned more than $50K a year and who were conservative in their politics. They were more likely to believe that future generations can take care of the risks from today’s technologies; they believed government and industry can be trusted to manage technological risks; they were less likely to support gender equality; and they were less likely to believe that climate change was human-made (bearing in mind climate change science has since developed further). These men had a higher trust in authority figures and they were less likely to support equality and social change. Why? Because being in a position of relative social power, they had the most to lose from social change on environmental, gender and political issues.
So if beliefs and values are so seemingly immutable, and attitudes mask underlying motives that people are unaware about, how do we increase trust in science to improve the tangible outcomes of public outreach?
Moving Forward: A case for public science
Beliefs are tied to personal identities and social status. People defend beliefs on the grounds that what they believe is true, obvious or simply “a given fact” because they have been socialised to do so since birth. Beliefs are tied to social belonging and social benefits, so there’s a lot at stake in defending them. Beliefs about equality align with the environmentalist movement because addressing climate change requires full civic participation. The beliefs of environmentalists also overlap with feminists as both groups want to see change in the social order. Beliefs are shaped by social institutions, but they can also be restricted by material constraints.
Values are normative because they are linked to powerful social institutions. Some scientific innovations are perceived to be inherently “good” or “bad” depending on how vested social interests are understood. In some contexts, GMOs are seen as bad because people think scientists can’t be trusted to separate methods from commercial interests.
Attitudes are interpersonal. They depend upon social exchange with particular people, but attitudes also reflect hidden or contradictory ideas that people hold. Public trust in institutions has been eroded since the late 1960s in different ways in different societies. People don’t trust scientists because for much of our history, our knowledge has been kept within academia. Most of the time when science reached the public, it was been reported on by the media, which is itself a mistrusted, though widely consumed, source of information.
Changing attitudes on “hot button” scientific issues is hard because people who seek out these debates already have pre-existing beliefs. Sometimes people think they’re being sceptical of a corrupt or unjust system when they take an anti-science perspective, as with the case of GM foods.
Most people view themselves favourably when it comes to social, economic, political and scientific issues. They think they’re impartial and rational, when really they’re just defending their place in the world.
Sometimes people already have a high distrust of institutions like medicine and science because they’ve been marginalised or abused by systems of power. The history of medicine has many horror stories, especially in connection to unethical treatment of Indigenous groups, minorities, women and the mentally ill. Unfortunately, science cannot simply hatch these up to isolated incidents of yore, as these cases directly impact on present-day public mistrust of scientists.
Rather than dismissing the past, it is more useful for scientists to understand how historical and cultural relations affect how people perceive the scientific community.
Better public education on science is only part of the answer. As we see, even amongst highly educated scientists, those with greater social power will happily acquiesce to higher authority. They are willing to take more risks with science and technology, but they are less supportive of equality and progressive social change where this threatens their beliefs and social position.
Supporting the public’s reflexive critical thinking is more important than simply pumping out science information.
Reflexive critical thinking
People like to think of themselves as objective and even-handed when weighing up evidence. This is one way to see critical thinking. I know that when I raise the idea of critical thinking on Science on Google+ when people are espousing sexist, racist or anti-science views, people get very irate. Critical thinking makes up a basic component of all scientific training, but reflexive critical thinking is so much more than simply taking in information, or arguing against views that conflict with our own.
Sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that a general state of reflexivity might be part of the reason why people are so worried about technological and social risks in ways that are not especially productive. Constantly distrusting institutions for the sake of distrusting institutions doesn’t get society very far. Questioning information that conflicts with our own is often a circular pursuit when both people are convinced they’re right, even though they’re relying solely on belief rather than evidence. You don’t really move forward.
When you don’t know what information to trust, or you have a weak commitment to new ideas, research shows you don’t take action. Or worse, as we see in our Community, people seek out alternative explanations to soothe their social malaise. Hence people end up espousing incorrect, dangerous and pseudo-scientific ideas they find on YouTube or some random website. These people may see themselves as great thinkers, but actually, they’re supporting the status quo.
Reflexive critical thinking is a methodology for knowing how to question information, as well as identifying and controlling for our personal biases. Scientists need to constantly engage in enquiry and reflection. Science requires that researchers actively change their ideas upon reflection of new interactions and new evidence. Again, I return to the question of: who benefits? People who argue against hot topic science issues are quick to call scientists corrupt but they are not so interested in understanding why they defend their position so strongly.
Why do people who disagree with science bother going to a science forum in the first place? “Trolling” is the standard answer in vogue. Yes, research shows that people who are negative and fatalistic waste their time getting into arguments online. Maybe some of them simply enjoy winding up scientists. Yet this is not all of science’s detractors. Some of them are defending their personal belief system; their personal identities; their place in the social order. The problem is they don’t understand this.
To date, science has been mediated through journalists who don’t often reflect the science correctly. They sensationalise and give misleading headlines. They report selectively or worse – they present science as simply validating pre-existing beliefs and stereotypes. (“Of course women are bitchy! Of course men and women’s brain’s are different, we always knew it!”) Blogging, social media, and collective efforts such as the Science on Google+ Community help scientists take back control of how science is presented to the public.
Part of this effort, we are quickly realising in our Community, is that public science education is not just about telling people about our own research, but publicly discussing other scientists’ research. Public critique of poor science journalism is also important. Both of these pursuits helps the public better understand what methodologies are used to weigh up evidence. Moreover, we’re seeing value in educating the public about how to read and discuss science. Our recent Science on Google+ Hangout (below) included a discussion of what our Curation team looks for in Community posts. We also have a range of tips for improving Community posts, our Curator’s Choice showcase examples of excellence, and we give other advice on general science writing for Google+.
These efforts are not about turning the public into a mass of scientists. No amount of public outreach can teach you to become a scientist. To qualify as a scientist you need structured learning. You need to learn to run your own research projects under strict supervision by an expert. It also means getting training in methodologies and ethics, and practising science through teaching and research assistance work. By stripping back the scientific process a little further, however, reflexive critical thinking can help the public better understand how science works. This process may go a long way to increasing public trust in science.
Public outreach, including all the hard bits like answering public questions and comments, is time consuming. Yet if we are going to repair our relationship with the public, we need to do more than just write in publications that speak to people who already think like us.
How sociology can help
For every amazing and dedicated sociologist I know who blogs, I know dozens upon dozens who do not do any public engagement whatsoever. Why should they? It doesn’t pay and it takes up effort that might be spent on peer-reviewed publications that universities covet. So, instead, they write in esoteric academic journals and wait hopefully for traditional media to pick up their research. Don’t get me wrong: the peer reviewed system is important to scientific advancement. We need the formal critique of our colleagues, and we need to contribute to the theoretical and empirical growth of our discipline. The problem is that this work is largely hidden from the public eye.
Open access journals are still not the norm in academia, and certainly not in sociology. As Susanne Bleiberg Seperson and others have argued, sociology has a public image problem. The public doesn’t know what we do, let alone how we do it. We write in jargon. We write in private circles that the public can’t join. We are seen as too theoretical and not very practical.
More social scientists need to step up to do the hard public science. That is, not just talking to the media once in a while, but talking more regularly with the public.
The social sciences are well-poised to improve the public’s trust in science because our work is focused on the influence of social institutions on behaviour. We are not above critique on these grounds. My blog has regularly shown how even as we expand social knowledge of culture and inequality, Western social sciences can misappropriate minority cultures or exclude Indigenous voices.
Sociology has long invested in a critique of the natural sciences, probably most famously by Michel Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other texts. The fact is that our craft also needs scrutiny and public engagement.
I see great value in contributing to a public, multidisciplinary dialogue about what it means to do science. This means collaborating within non-social-scientists on improving public science communication, while also engaging in mutual critique of methods, conclusions and applications of science in the real world.
Many of the anti-science critics are espousing cultural arguments without knowing it. This is where public sociology can really shine, by showing how inequality, social values and power affect how people engage with science. This is a big and important job. We need all hands on deck. This means you!
This is our Science on Google+ Curation team discussing how we choose high quality science posts. Join us to expand our social science contribution.
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