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Press Release
More talk, less agreement: Risk discussion can hurt consensus-building on science/technology
Thursday, November 4, 2010


(Photo: Max Brown/STOCK.XCHNG)
When it comes to public issues pertaining to science and technology, "talking it out" doesn't seem to work. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that the more people discuss the risks and benefits associated with scientific endeavors, the more entrenched they become in their viewpoint – and the less likely they are to see the merit of other viewpoints.

"This research highlights the difficulty facing state and federal policy leaders when it comes to high-profile science and technology issues, such as stem cell research or global warming," says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. "Government agencies view research on these issues as vital and necessary for the country's future, but building public consensus for that research is becoming increasingly difficult."

The researchers set out to see how people talk about risks associated with unfamiliar science and technology issues, Binder explains. "Most people, when faced with an issue related to science and technology, adopt an initial position of support or opposition," Binder says. "Our results demonstrate very clearly that the more people talk about divisive science and technology issues, the less likely the two camps are to see the issue in the same way. This is problematic because it suggests that individuals are very selective in choosing their discussion partners and hearing only what they want to hear during discussions of controversial issues."

In the study, the researchers focused on public debate related to the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which the federal government discussed building in one of six sites around the country. Some members of the public opposed building a facility housing highly infectious animal diseases in their community. The six proposed sites were Athens, Ga., Manhattan, Kan., Plum Island, N.Y., Butner, N.C., Flora, Miss., and San Antonio, Texas. Manhattan was ultimately selected as the site for the NBAF.

The researchers conducted surveys of residents living near the proposed sites to collect data on people's perceptions of the potential risks and benefits associated with NBAF. Specifically, the results showed that, among people who opposed the facility, the more an individual discussed the issue with other people in their community, the more firmly entrenched he/she became in his/her perception of greater risks and fewer benefits. Conversely, among those who supported the facility, increased discussion led to an increased perception of benefits and a decreased perception of risks.

This research was done as part of an overarching grant project funded by the National Science Foundation, which is aimed at understanding the public opinion and policy dynamics surrounding site-selections for federal research facilities.

"This work will likely inform future decision-making on how federal agencies engage the public in regard to large-scale research initiatives," Binder says.

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North Carolina State University: http://www.ncsu.edu


Thanks to North Carolina State University for this article.

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Comments
seabear70

Guest Comment
Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 7:29 am CDT

Here's the problem...

 

When you don't actually discuss things beforehand you wind up just giving into the most aggressive group. Nine times out of ten, that aggressive group is filled with idiots and nut cases who want to ignore everything that does not support their argument and so you get crap science that mostly contradicts itself and in the end is useless for anything but garnering more funding.

Because the people who insisted on the funding in the first place are basing their careers and reputations on finding the exact outcome they claimed they would get, they have to throw scientific method out the window and don't ever dare admit they were wrong and have no choice but to attack anyone who questions their methods or results.

 

So you get nut cases trying to deoxygenate the ocean in an attempt to lower CO2 levels. a brief discussion would have pointed out just how insane the attempt was, but the scientist in question received funding just by asking around. THe only reason we're not in a soylent green scenario now is the ocean is a very big place.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 8:01 am CDT

But you see this kind of behavior in arguments on any subject be it science or politics.  We need to find a way around this.  Although I'm not sure that's even possible.  It's really hard to break through someone's entrenched opinions.

Andrew

Guest Comment
Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 10:36 am CDT

Brian Krueger, PhD said:

But you see this kind of behavior in arguments on any subject be it science or politics.  We need to find a way around this.  Although I'm not sure that's even possible.  It's really hard to break through someone's entrenched opinions.

To your implication, I do not think it is possible.  Assessing data and isolating pertinent facts is a learned skill.  Most engineering and scientific degree programs spend a lot time simply teaching students how to solve problems through rigorous methods.  The average person does not have this training.  Expecting the average person to identify, isolate and remove their emotional and confirmation bias before approaching a problem would be like expecting the average engineering student to be good at arc welding.  If a person has not been trained in a skill and/or has not practiced it, we cannot reasonable expect them to be good at it, regardless of the person or skill in question.

I believe (though probably cannot easily substantiate) that the issue only gets worse due to our own opinion of our opinions.  I feel people view their opinions as an extension of themselves; attempting to show that an opinion is unsupported by fact becomes equivalent to attack the holder of the opinion.  This is in contrast to my arc welding example above.  A college student may not like being told that their arc weld is poor, but I believe most would realize that in describing the weld as poor we are not personal attacking them.  As the opinion holder comes to feel that they are being attacked, they will defend themselves and become futher entrenched in their opinion.

While training everyone in standard problem solving techniques might solve the problem, this is no more likely than teaching everyone to arc weld.

I am an engineering professional who has worked in manufacturing environments for over 25 years.  I have been involved in numerous efforts to engage manufacturing line workers in problem identification and resolution efforts.  It is often extremely difficult for them.  They are not 'dumb' people, many are quite bright.  But while we, as scientists and engineers, have been practicing solving problems for years - they have been practicing various manufacturing skills for years.  We can no more impart our problem solving experience to them in a week than they can impart their manufacturing skills to us in a week.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 11:01 am CDT

You raise some great points, Andrew.  I know that my opinion and reaction to an argument is really dependent on how it is presented to me.  If it starts out as an attack or a percieved attack, I'm very likely to get defensive and not really care what your rationale is on the topic.

I also think a lot of people respond defensively to arguments that they don't truly understand.

There's definitely some more research that needs to be done here on conflict resolution.  Scientists sometimes have a very hard time conveying meaning and importance.  Do you think that's more to do with the ability of the public to interpret the message or is it in our inability to speak in a way that relates to them?

Andrew

Guest Comment
Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 1:54 pm CDT

Brian Krueger, PhD said:

I also think a lot of people respond defensively to arguments that they don't truly understand.

There's definitely some more research that needs to be done here on conflict resolution.  Scientists sometimes have a very hard time conveying meaning and importance.  Do you think that's more to do with the ability of the public to interpret the message or is it in our inability to speak in a way that relates to them?

My opinion again, likely both poor communication and lack of foundational knowledge play into it.  But I strongly suspect it is a thrid thing.  I am trying to recall the reference and it escapes me, but the phrase is, "Each of us speaks from his own pain."  When I hear most people argue an opinion, they are not arguing on fact, but arguing on how they wish things were.  It's an easy trap.  Part of the training that engineers and scientists go through addresses that our wants, hopes and dreams do not trump fact.  I must acknowledge that as pragmatic as I am, I catch myself drifting into that territory from time to time.  This is especially true if the argument concerns something that affects me or those close to me.

Using the article's example of the National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility - it is easier to analytically weigh the pros and cons of a particular build site for such a project when the proposed build site is not across the street from my home.  As long as it is in someone else's backyard it's just a numerical risk assessment vs. gain assessment.

In turn, I doubt the federal government is holding nationwide discussion on the NBADF; I am betting that the community discussions are being held in the six target locations.  The people that come to those meetings have more of a personal stake than the rest of us.  Their personal stake does not change the facts.  But it likely makes it more difficult for the local population to focus on those facts.

Andrew

Guest Comment
Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 2:14 pm CDT

@Brian

I also wanted to add that problems spring up around any argument that weighs abstract people against concrete people.

Consider the hypothetical situation of having a 1000 convicted murderers in a room - all up for parole.  Knowing the recidivism rates for murderers, we can say that if we parole all 1000 of these murderers, then, on average, while most will never hurt anyone again, a few will.  So, a few of these murderers will murder again (on average) and X innocent people will die (let's just say 5 for example, I do not know the rates.)

Those 5, unknown victims are very abstract.  With a large enough sampling of murderers, the strong law of large numbers demands that 5 people will be killed per 1000 (again, made up number).  But, as abstract victims, they do not carry as much weight as the 1000 real humans in front of us and up for parole.

If we tried to argue that we should not release these 1000 convicts because their parole would lead to the murder of 5 people, we will get a lot of push back.

But, if we could look ahead into time and identify who those 5 victims would be...  Then our argument becomes if you parole these 1000 convicts your action will explicitly bring about the murders of the 3 children Tom, Jane and Nancy Smith and their 38 year old mother Sue; as well as the murder of Bill Jones in an unrelated incident.  Not only do I believe that fewer would argue for the convicts release, I am willing to bet there would be a lot of people suddenly switching sides and saying the convicts should remain incarcerated.

To most people, the 13,000 people we lose in the US each year to drunk driving are not 'real'.  This is one of the biggest obstacles in these types of debates.  To those of us with a strong math background, those people are very real, even if we do not specifically know their names yet.

Research Joe

Guest Comment
Fri, Nov 05, 2010, 2:47 pm CDT

One way to maybe break through this is to force each group to defend first their side of the argument, then the other.  We had to do this back in middle school for some class, and if you take it seriously enough, you start to see the merits of the other argument.

Also, as a Wolfpack graduate, I'm proud to see an article from NC State on here Laughing

Alice

Guest Comment
Sun, Nov 07, 2010, 6:26 am CST

Human beings evolved from irrational, emotional creatures.  Our rationality is vastly over-rated, even in scientists and engineers.  When politics and the legal system get involved, rationality flies out the window entirely.

Science is not a voting consensus.  Often it is the minority opinion that finally wins out, sometimes taking generations for popular paradigms to change.  Neither is it relevant scientifically what opinions members of the general public hold on a scientific or technological issue.

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