Ignorance of Science

A recent meeting in Manchester coordinated by the Technology Strategy Board Synthetic Biology Special Interest Group aimed to bring potential collaborators together in order to apply for funding from the recent TSB call for Synthetic Biology. The call, “Advancing the Industrial Application of Synthetic Biology,” has been importantly influenced by a number of recent meetings of the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group. Those meetings are, in part, influenced by David Willett’s approach to technology development as ‘practical leadership’, which places an emphasis on government, academic and – above all – industrial collaboration. No surprise then that Dr Lionel Clarke from Shell chaired the meetings and was responsible for pulling together information from the Group to produce the recently published Synthetic Biology Roadmap.

The Roadmap is an interesting document. As well as the usual promises about amelioration and prosperity (as Rabinow and Bennett term it) there was something a little more unusual. The Roadmap includes a more nuanced account of innovation and public acceptance than one would usually find in such a document, primarily because of the involvement of Dr. Claire Marris, Jane Calvert and Prof. Nikolas Rose. Here’s a quote:

“The direction taken by innovation pathways, and their perceived social consequences, themselves shape public responses. The responses and decisions of many and varied social groups – alongside those of academic researchers and firms – help to determine technological pathways and the realisation of benefits. These include institutions involved in health, safety and environmental regulation, intellectual property, research funding, and capital investment, as well as intended users and beneficiaries, and civil society groups. New social groups also emerge alongside innovation (new pressure groups may come into being when, for example, a new drug is developed to extend the life of patients with a specific terminal cancer). All of these groups need to be actively engaged, throughout the process, in the governance of synthetic biology research and innovation.”

There is much to be praised about such a statement and indeed the involvement of social scientists seems to have had an effect on the TSB’s approach to its funding call, which now includes a requirement – for the first time – to use their new ‘Ethical, Social and Regulatory’ assessment mechanism. Social scientists, including myself, were on-hand to offer our assistance in completing the assessment and to help provide some information about current thinking in the field. So it seemed like there was a good chance this might go well and that we might unshackle ourselves from the long-established ‘innovation pipeline’ metaphor and the obsession with preventing another GM.

However, as clear as these social science pages are in the Roadmap and as much time was spent on presenting alternative ways of thinking about innovation (from Joyce Tait, for example) the recurrent theme of discussions was the arcane notion that GM was ruined by, as one person put it on the day, “well organised pressure groups.” Asking a question of Prof. Tait one audience member inquired as to whether we had any information about how the groups reacting to SB were organising. Was there going to be concerted resistance? In the course of the day I overheard more than one conversation about media influence of public opinion and the public being ignorant of the reality of genetic engineering. Tellingly, there was talk of the way in which ‘synthetic biology’ as a neologism promised to distance the research from the history of GM.

I report all of this to to throw my hat in with Marris et al., and say that if we really do want to see innovation pathways become more robust and responsible then we must do away with this seemingly endemic notion that ‘the public’ distrusts science and is as easily swayed by media currents as a paper boat on the Atlantic. We have to be able to engage publics with innovation in meaningful ways. My recent discussion with neuroskeptic about the difficulty of communicating social science writing is pertinent here. In that discussion we talked briefly about the power differential between sociological knowledge claims and scientific knowledge claims. An important element to add to this is the ‘lock-in’ of certain beliefs. We get stuck in particular ways of thinking about the world because changing those beliefs requires changing a whole load of other beliefs, dispositions and technical practices. So when disciplines try to work together and communicate it isn’t only changing our terminology that is at stake, but also our ways of conceiving the world and our ways of producing knowledge in the world. These have to be communicated and understood as well and this exposes them to contention, and that is a far greater challenge.

So, for example, good, accessible, alternative accounts of public beliefs around science and technology do exist. Social scientists like Claire Marris have been doing an excellent job of evidencing how ‘the public’ as imagined by this endemic position on ‘public ignorance’ simply doesn’t exist, and of how views are not simply adopted wholesale from lazy or hyperbolic journalism. As Marris points out, participants in focus groups on GMOs “did not react so much to genetic modification as a specific technology, but rather to the institutional context in which GMOs have been developed, evaluated and promoted.” Moreover, that non-scientists are simply ignorant and could be somehow cured of their ignorance and thus of their irrational resistance is patently false. In Marris’ report she shows how participants readily acknowledged their ignorance of the scientific and technical information and that their opinions were not based on misinformation that they held to be true. Instead, their ideas about GMOs were importantly tied to beliefs about agricultural practices, for example, which they saw to be increasingly focussed on profit and efficiency and not on variety and quality. Their feelings and thoughts about GMOs, then, were importantly contextualised by the very contexts in which GMOs were developing.

The problem is that no matter how many times social scientists present alternative positions on innovation and dispel the myths of the GM disaster, the easier thing for many natural scientists is to continue to see the public as one unruly, ignorant mass baying for their heads. A partial explanation for this is that it means they don’t have to take seriously the possibility that members of the public might hold a large number of complex, informed and contextual opinions that might differ from their own in legitimate ways. It would mean acknowledging that the public does include expert groups, from lawyers through accountants to plumbers, all of whom have various investments in science and technology and have myriad different voices and opinions. It would also mean acknowledging that scientists themselves have political and social dispositions and beliefs and these can’t be easily extricated from their work.

A further difficulty of engaging with the public in this more substantive way is that it makes the ‘problem’ of getting scientific research into applied, innovative contexts seem much more intractable. If the members of publics are not simply misinformed by biased pressure groups and poor reporting and are instead interpreting technological developments within their contexts of political and social production then that means more substantive, more frequent and more open discussion is necessary to engage with questions about implications, risks and benefits. This is a problem because it costs time and resources and it opens up the practices and contexts of science to question. When members of publics connect up scientific development to capitalist projects, for example, scientific and technical facts become more difficult to claim as entirely unmotivated and as totally objective. Communicating with the public around SB would require, for instance, thoughtful and nuanced engagement with the implications of the connection between the technical development of biofuels and the aims of huge petroleum companies. Another example would be having to discuss the development of SB in the context of weapons development and war, since DARPA and other agencies have taken more than a passing interest in the prospects of designed organisms. Opening up scientific practice exposes the many ways in which research and innovation is political and forces scientists to confront their own investments.

Engaging with the contexts of their research and the substantive beliefs and knowledge of lay members is therefore time consuming and emotionally and politically demanding. A recent survey I conducted for a major research university showed that those researchers who were most engaged in public dialogue found it had positively and productively changed their opinions of ‘the public’ but that it had also begun to take up far more time and emotional labour than they’d anticipated. Some were willing to put in the extra hours and to think carefully about how they justified their work and made sense of their research, and some were simply unwilling or unable. Some thought we needed to change institutional structures and others thought we needed expert roles specifically for such activities. Whatever the response to these challenges it was a far more complex situation than simply educating and ignorant public. That being said, this more complex problem of institutional reorganisation of the scientific life is a far more realistic way of achieving publicly-engaged innovation.

Ultimately, however, the pressures of academic work and the history of rhetoric around objectivity means that natural scientists themselves remain ignorant of public beliefs, thoughts and feelings and this leaves us stuck in unproductive accounts of public ignorance and unidirectional pipelines to innovation.

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One thought on “Ignorance of Science

  1. “Moreover, that non-scientists are simply ignorant and could be somehow cured of their ignorance and thus of their irrational resistance is patently false. In Marris’ report she shows how participants readily acknowledged their ignorance of the scientific and technical information and that their opinions were not based on misinformation that they held to be true. Instead, their ideas about GMOs were importantly tied to beliefs about agricultural practices, for example, which they saw to be increasingly focussed on profit and efficiency and not on variety and quality. Their feelings and thoughts about GMOs, then, were importantly contextualised by the very contexts in which GMOs were developing.”

    See this is the problem. It sounds like most of these people were not, in fact, worried about GMOs at all, but by modern agriculture, and GMOs were merely a way in which these concerns were expressed.

    And why not? When else do the public get a chance to talk about modern agriculture in focus groups? That’s a real problem, but it’s not a GMO problem, it’s a social problem.

    And actually this links into what I was saying about social science being so important. Social scientists have lots of interesting things to say about agriculture (and many other things) – but the public don’t know it. The only “window” between the Ivory Tower and the public on the issue of agriculture (and much else) is when a new technology comes along.

    But it seems to me that the technology itself is rarely if ever what people are (or should be) really worried about. What they worry (and rightly) are social factors, social forces, social changes. They need social science! But all they get is science.

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