Public understanding of science research shows individuals surveyed to be remarkably ignorant of particular facts about science, but is that the right measure of how science is understood and used by the public at large? Such surveys ask about disconnected facts independent from a context in which they might be used, and measure only an individual’s personal knowledge. If, instead, those surveyed were asked who among their friends would they rely upon to obtain the answer to such a question, or how would they go about finding a reliable answer to the question, the results might prove to be quite different.
Context can be quite important. In the Wason selection task, individuals are shown four cards labeled, respectively, “E”, “K,” “4,” and “7,” and are asked which cards they would need to turn over in order to test the rule, “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.” Test subjects do very well at recognizing that the “E” card needs to be turned over (corresponding to the logical rule of modus ponens), but very poorly at recognizing that the “7,” rather than the “4,” needs to be turned over to find out if the rule holds (i.e., they engage in the fallacy of affirming the consequent rather than use the logical rule of modus tollens). But if, instead of letters and numbers, a scenario with more context is constructed, subjects perform much more reliably. In one variant, subjects were told to imagine that they are post office workers sorting letters, and looking to find those which do not comply with a regulation that requires an additional 10 lire of postage on sealed envelopes. They are then presented with four envelopes (two face down, one opened and one sealed, and two face up, one with a 50-lire stamp and one with a 40-lire stamp) and asked to test the rule “If a letter is sealed, then it has a 50-lire stamp on it.” Subjects then recognize that they need to turn over the sealed face-down envelope and the 40-lire stamped envelope, despite its logical equivalent to the original selection task that they perform poorly on.
Sheila Jasanoff, in Designs on Nature, argues that measures of the public understanding of science are not particularly relevant to how democracies actually use science. Instead, she devotes chapter 10 of her book to an alternative approach, “civic epistemology,” which is a qualitative framework for understanding the methods and practices of a community’s generation and use of knowledge. She offers six dimensions of civic epistemologies:
(1) the dominant participatory styles of public knowledge-making; (2) the methods of ensuring accountability; (3) the practices of public demonstration; (4) the preferred registers of objectivity; (5) the accepted bases of expertise; and (6) the visibility of expert bodies. (p. 259)She offers the following table of comparison on these six dimensions for the U.S., Britain, and Germany:
|United States |
|1 Pluralist, interest-based||Embodied, service-based||Corporatist, institution-based|
|2 Assumptions of distrust; Legal||Assumptions of trust; Relational||Assumption of trust; Role-based|
|3 Sociotechnical experiments||Empirical science||Expert rationality|
|4 Formal, numerical, reasoned||Consultative, negotiated||Negotiated, reasoned|
|5 Professional skills||Experience||Training, skills, experience|
She argues that this multi-dimensional approach provides a meaningful way of evaluating the courses of scientific policy disputes regarding biotech that she describes in the prior chapters of the book, while simply looking at national data on public understanding of science with regard to those controversies offers little explanation. The nature of those controversies didn’t involve just disconnected facts, or simple misunderstandings of science, but also involved interests and values expressed through various kinds of political participation.
Public understanding of science surveys do provide an indicator of what individuals know that may be relevant to public policy on education, but it is at best a very indirect and incomplete measure of what is generally accepted in a population, and even less informative about how institutional structures and processes use scientific information. The social structures in modern democracies are responsive to other values beyond the epistemic, and may in some cases amplify rational or radical ignorance of a population, but they may more frequently moderate and mitigate such ignorance.
- Eurobarometer Biotechnology Quiz results from Jasanoff, Designs on Nature, 2005, Princeton University Press, p. 87.
- U.S., Canada, Netherlands survey results from Thomas J. Hoban slide in Gary Marchant’s “Law, Science, and Technology” class lecture on public participation in science (Nov. 16, 2009).
- Wason task description from John R. Anderson, Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications, Second Edition, 1985, W.H. Freeman and Company, pp. 268-269.