Let me just say it: our current approach to communicating with the public about scientific breakthroughs and new technologies is not working. There are a number of reasons why. I've outlined them here in the form of five basic lessons that we learned from our recent analyses of US public opinion and media data about nanotechnology [1].


The myth of the ‘scientific citizen’

Many public communication efforts by scientists have focused on consensus conferences or forums, with the goal of involving an otherwise uninterested or at least scientifically uninformed audience. Unfortunately, the idea that such meetings are a more general solution to the widespread lack of interest and knowledge among the public is questionable at best. In fact, public forums may have overall detrimental effects on opinion by making the already information-rich even more informed while not engaging the vast majority of citizens.

That is not to say that forums cannot be important tools of public outreach. They are a very effective way of engaging highly interested citizens in the process of scientific decision-making and allowing these individuals to raise potential concerns about new technologies. However, as most surveys on nanotechnology show, a vast majority of the public is unengaged and uninformed. This is in part because of the minimal amount of media coverage that the issue has received so far. But it is also a function of a second phenomenon outlined next.

Low information rationality

Human beings are cognitive misers and minimize the economic costs of making decisions – and that includes nanotechnology. Low information rationality makes perfect sense for citizens who have to deal with thousands of pieces of new information every day and need to establish patterns of doing so quickly and efficiently. It does not make sense, therefore, for most to develop in-depth understanding of issues. As a result, they form attitudes on issues such as nanotechnology even in the absence of sufficient information.

Perceptual filters

One tool that audiences use to sift through all the information they encounter about new technologies is what I call ‘perceptual filters’. These can be religious beliefs, moral values, trust in scientists, prior knowledge, or any other interpretive world view that people use to make sense of information.

The fact that people use these predispositions as interpretive tools also means, however, that the same piece of information may be understood very differently by different people. As a result, messages about scientific discoveries may be interpreted differently by different sections of the audience, depending upon their beliefs, prior knowledge, and other factors.

Let me highlight this using an example. In a survey of the US public in late 2004, we asked respondents to indicate their general support for nanotechnology. When we correlated their perceptions of potential benefits with their support for nanotech, we found an interesting pattern. For highly religious respondents, benefit perceptions influenced overall support significantly less than for respondents who reported lower levels of religiosity. In other words, religious respondents used their faith as a perceptual filter to interpret the potential benefits of nanotechnology.

Framing the message

Interest groups and other lobbyists in the policy arena have long played to these perceptual filters by framing messages in different ways. The replacing of ‘gun control’ with ‘gun safety’ in all communications out of the Clinton White House after 1996 is a good example of a frame that tried to shift people's perceptual filter from a regulatory constitutional issue to one focused on the dangers of innocent children being killed in gun-related accidents.

Entering the fray

The lessons are simple. Science communication and education needs to address different audiences and abandon the idea of a ‘scientific citizen’. Again, this does not mean that information is not important. But we know from decades of research in political communication that information can be presented in ways that fundamentally change the interpretation among audiences. And more importantly, citizens will always use their own preexisting values to interpret information, even if it is presented in the most neutral way possible.

Consequently, understanding these results and using them for effective public communication about nanotechnology is not an option, it is a necessity. Interest groups, corporations, and other players in the policy arena have long used these strategies for successful communication with a miserly public that will often form opinions based on a very limited amount of information whether we like it or not.

My recommendation is not to engage in propagandistic attempts to sway opinions one way or another. On the contrary, my point is that if scientists want to have their views heard in public debate, they need to understand and use the appropriate tools that are available for different audiences.

Further reading
[1] C.-J. Lee et al. Sci. Commun., 27 (2005), p. 240
[2] D.A. Scheufele, B.V. Lewenstein, J. Nanoparticle Res., 7 (2005), p. 659 (Uncited reference)


Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71522-X