Risk, science and public communication: Third-order thinking about scientific culture

Alan Irwin


As the chapters in this handbook richly suggest, science communication is important in many contexts and many different ways. This chapter focuses on an area that has at times been especially controversial and contested. The relationship between risk, science and science communication lies at the core of some difficult matters of governance, public discussion and decision-making. This relationship, in turn, raises many questions about the nature — and indeed the purpose — of science

1 communication .

To offer the significant example of climate change, a good argument can be made that ‘communication’ is by no means a minor aspect of global action. Instead, it is actually central to the whole international process. How does one communicate uncertainty, disagreement and complexity? How can ‘the facts’ of climate change but also matters of values and responsibility be communicated? How can an open and informed discussion be conducted about scientific and political choices? And what new challenges are being created for ‘science communication’ itself: should it be seen as a one-way dissemination process or as a matter of dialogue and building shared understanding?

At the time of writing, the societal response to COVID-19 is raising related questions about the relationship between risk, science and public communication. In that case, one can see that risks may be communicated quite differently across national contexts, suggesting also that scientific advice, public health controls and political decisions may be bound together in many ways. In particular, scientists can find themselves taking on an advisory role even at the same time as they grapple with the technical uncertainties of a novel form of threat. Furthermore, risk communication takes place across a diverse landscape including official and unofficial sources, newspaper and media outlets, digital sources and political voices of different kinds. In a complex and demanding situation, public communication becomes much more than ‘getting the science across’.

Against this general background, the current chapter more specifically explores some ways of thinking about science communication and risk management. In certain contexts, there has been a transition from 'first order’ (or deficit) models of science-public relations to a greater emphasis on public engagement and dialogue (or what will be described here as ‘second order’ thinking). However, and as it will be presented, ‘third order’ thinking about risk, science and public communication asks more fundamental questions about the underlying relationship between ‘first’ and ‘second’ order approaches, the changes that have taken place (both in theory and practice) and the future direction of science communication and scientific governance.

In the following account, the public communication of science and technology is presented as more than a matter of communication style. Instead, we confront basic issues of the shaping and direction of socio-technical change, the frameworks within which communication takes place, cultures of governance and control (especially relating to the institutions of science and technology) and the choices available to citizens within modern democracies. However, it is worth emphasising from the start that this is not a story of one way of thinking giving way to the next and then the next. Instead, the situation in many national and local settings is of different approaches and perspectives being mixed up together. Thus, the deficit model co-exists with talk of dialogue and engagement. While in some countries one might identify a movement from deficit to dialogue, in other settings one can perceive the opposite process (Horst 2014). And while some organisations and individuals look for quick and easy solutions to communication problems, others have begun to reflect upon the limitations, complications and contexts of both deficit and dialogue.

Although we could start this discussion in many ways, one obvious place to begin is in Western Europe where something interesting has been happening to at least the language of science communication and scientific governance. In the United Kingdom, a landmark report from the House of Lords tackled the broad topic of ‘Science and Society’ by emphasising the ‘new mood for dialogue’ about science and technology (House of Lords 2000). Along with other British reports from the late 1990s onwards, the Lords Select Committee presented science’s relationship with society as being under strain. The House of Lords committee members sought a greater acknowledgement of doubt and uncertainty and a change in the culture of science communication and decision-making ‘so that it becomes normal to bring science and the public into dialogue about new developments at an early stage’ (House of Lords 2000: 13). In 2002, the European Commission published its own Action Plan on Science and Society, calling for an ‘open dialogue’ over technological innovation as part of its ‘new partnership’ between science and society (European Commission 2002). Meanwhile, The Netherlands has a long history of dialogue and engagement concerning science and technology’, including a major public debate around genetically modified foods (Hagendijk and Irwin 2006). Denmark too has a strong tradition in this area: notably, consensus conferences in which panels of citizens come together to debate and make recommendations with regard to specific areas of socio-technical change (Horst and Irwin 2010).

But it is not just in Western Europe that public engagement and dialogue have been both advocated and enacted. Related activities and debates can be found in (among other countries) Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and the United States (Einsiedel et al. 2011; Hindmarsh and Du Plessis 2008; Macnaghten and Guivant 2011; Yamaguchi 2010; Zhao et al. 2015). The basic inspiration for all of these national and international discussions is the notion that more active, open and democratic relations between science and citizens are both desirable and necessary. At the same time, they suggest a critique of what has gone before, of what the UK Chief Scientific Adviser described in the Lords report as a ‘rather backward-looking vision’ (House of Lords: 25) where ‘difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance on the part of the public’ and ‘with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well.’ This conceptualisation of an ignorant and uninformed public for science (characterised as the ‘deficit theory’ by social scientists in the 1990s: Wynne 1995, Irwin and Wynne 1996) has been a powerful provocation to change, prompting the argument that we now need to move ‘from deficit to dialogue’ (Irwin 2006, 2014). In what follows, we will present this conceptual and institutional shift as a movement (albeit a partial one) from ‘first’ to ‘second’ order thinking.

In order to provide some background to these issues of science communication and governance, we will now make a brief excursion back to the early 1990s in one nation which has been especially significant in this context. Britain back then was edging towards what would later be seen as the BSE (or ‘mad cow’) crisis. Certainly, the notion that the relevant government department badly handled science-citizen relations — and a consequent desire to ‘avoid another BSE’ — has exerted a powerful influence on institutional thinking about risk communication and management.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >