Friday, November 21, 2003

'Societal Concerns' vs. Scientific Accuracy

My latest column is posted over at Small Times. It's about how the media can give the false impression that there are competing, but equally valid, bodies of research in areas of scientific disagreement. We're seeing this in general media reports on nanotechnology, which often give the impression that there is equal division between those who promote and oppose a moratorium on its development. I've delved into the issue before over here, too.

A few thoughts from my column that were left on the cutting-room floor:

If societal concerns are going to be taken into account, we need to look at how the society is being informed. The new American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center authorized by the nanotech bill should ask that question, as well. Any study on "societal impact" of a technology is also, by definition, a measure of the prejudices and preconceptions the public holds -- based in part on how the technology is explained to them. To take a reading of "societal concerns" is to measure popularly held beliefs, rather than scientific fact. Those who have assigned themselves the mission of informing society should, in theory, try as best they can to reconcile the two.

Christine Peterson at the Foresight Institute says that it's ultimately up to the scientists, themselves, if they want their story communicated properly. "It is a responsibility of scientists and technologists to educate the public. If they can't stand to deal with the media, they can go directly to the public via the Web and by writing books." But to do that is to also alienate themselves among their colleagues. Carl Sagan, she pointed out, paid a price in reputation among his peers for stooping so low as to try to communicate effectively to the uneducated.

Aside from the Royal Society's groundbreaking efforts, there are other projects that aim to bridge this gap of understanding. A European organization called the GreenFacts Foundation is working with scientists to help ensure that nonspecialists understand important scientific information.


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