The Oxford Handbook of The Science of Science Communication - Book Review

Review by Felicity Mellor

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dan Kahan and Dietram A. Scheufele
The Oxford Handbook of The Science of Science Communication,
Oxford University Press, 2017
This volume of 47 chapters by 57 contributors is divided into six parts, the first offering overviews of different aspects of the field and the later sections picking up specific themes, such as the role of the media and the impact of a polarised political environment. Each part ends with a helpful summary of the preceding chapters. The inclusion of a section devoted to the public impact of publication practices within science is a useful addition to a book of this sort, as is a section that identifies the distinctive roles of elite intermediaries such as government agencies and philanthropic organisations. Chapters are illustrated with reference to science-relevant policy debates that will be familiar to readers of this journal; climate change, vaccination and GM crops are invoked with particular frequency.

At one reading, focusing on the central sections and paying careful attention to the caveats and footnotes in other chapters, the volume advances an understanding of the public as capable of recognising appropriate expertise, proficient at making the mental shortcuts that are necessary in a media-saturated world, aware of the need to consider wider cultural values in reaching decisions on science-relevant issues and overwhelmingly supportive of science and accepting of science-based advice. Many of the chapters show how controversies around public policy tend not to be reducible to matters of science and note that scientists also rely on heuristics, not just logical deliberation, when making decisions.

However, a reading of the chapters that draw most heavily on social psychology offers a rather different picture, as made clear by the chapter titles of the final section, the majority of which refer to “overcoming” this or that “bias”. In these chapters, as in some of the contributions by the editors, science communication is repeatedly referred to as a “problem” and the science communication environment as “polluted” and “distorted”. In a chapter using particularly emotive language, editor Dan Kahan rails against “evidence-uninformed, decentralized, unprofessional, and unmanaged risk communicators” who engage in “feral risk communication” and create a communication environment “rife with contaminants”.

From these chapters, a bleak view of US society emerges: science is under attack, distorting value systems prevent the roll-out of policies that could otherwise be determined by scientific information, and the public – superficial, inattentive and innumerate – are handicapped by all sorts of cognitive biases, misguided by prior experience and easily swayed by their emotions. Despite the move away from an information deficit model to a model that recognises affect, it seems that the public is still construed as an obstacle, only this time failing in their rational capabilities rather than their knowledge.

In their introductory and concluding chapters, the editors are careful not to present such a crude account. Indeed, elsewhere Kahan has argued against what he calls “the public irrationality thesis”. But the editors’ insistence on a “science of” science communication and their instrumentalist agenda to promote quantitative research aimed at improving future science communication, coheres with the assumptions that science is capable of resolving social controversies and that communication is a problem that can be fixed – a communication fix to aid the technological fix that already seduces scientists and policy makers.

What is significant is what this framing leaves out. Firstly, the “problem” is located in the minds – and more specifically the cognitive processes – of individual citizens, rather than in the behaviours and beliefs of scientists or in the structures and interests of our social institutions. Even the section whose chapters do attend to processes within the science community is framed as a matter of “attacks on science”. As some chapters make clear, especially in this section and in the section on case studies, one might alternatively consider the ways in which the institutional structures of science are unable to accommodate the cultural values that are essential to the proper functioning of civil society. To move from a deficit model of science communication to a dialogue model of social engagement implies a reverse perspective of precisely this sort.

Secondly, some chapters imply that proper attention to the science would determine policy outcomes. Nuclear power, GM crops and fracking are all mentioned in this vein, even though other chapters show how issues such as these are unavoidably social and cultural. Science can feature as a significant element in the rhetoric of a controversy – as when climate change-deniers try to generate doubt by keeping the debate on the science – without being able to determine which course of action is in the public interest. As several of the contributors note, this latter nearly always needs to take account of – and possibly transform – complex socio-economic conditions about which the science has little to say.

Finally, we might also question whether there is actually a science communication problem at all – not only in the sense that Kahan poses in chapter 3, where he argues that a focus on “extraordinary scientific ignorance” means that we fail to notice the high level of “ordinary” compliance with science – but also in reflecting on the role of dispute within democracy. Protest and debate are at the heart of our democratic processes; the view that scientific knowledge is generated through consensus can perhaps obscure the essential role of dissensus in a vigorous democracy. That might be particularly difficult to hold in mind in the current political climate and with action on climate change so very urgent, yet suppression of debate is precisely what the demagogues desire.

In configuring what some of us prefer to call ‘science communication studies’ as ‘the science of science communication’, this volume sets out a preferred approach to research in this area. In their introduction, the editors state that the science of science communication draws on evidence that is “transparent and replicable, theory driven, and generalizable. In short, evidence is derived by the scientific method ....”. To narrowly interpret empirical evidence as that which is replicable, generalizable and generated through application of the scientific method, is to excise from the field many decades of insightful qualitative research in the sociology of science, cultural geography, the history of science and more.

Certainly, the insights of cognitive and social psychology have much to offer science communication studies, but as the editors acknowledge, a reliance on experiments conducted in highly-constrained artificial situations (for instance, lab-based tests of responses to different texts) limits their power to explain complex cultural dynamics, let alone their ability to inform practice. The data currently being amassed by web analytics may be one way of overcoming the problems of small samples and contrived testing conditions, yet the difficulty of tapping into the wider cultural context – of understanding what the data means – will remain.

A volume as long as this does not speak with one voice and, although it promotes a particular view of a diverse field, the chapters vary in the extent to which they embrace this view. In his contribution, Bruce Lewenstein critiques the instrumentalist agenda that animates the “science of” approach; he makes the case for the contextual studies offered by historians and sociologists. As Lewenstein argues, controversies are an inherent part of the social and political context of science and attempts to prevent or resolve them require high levels of self-reflection. In not being explicit about the assumptions and implications that accompany the reconfiguration of science communication research as a science, the editors have passed up the opportunity to inject that much needed element of self-reflection.

 Felicity Mellor is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London; her recent publications include The Silences of Science: Gaps and Pauses in the Communication of Science, co-edited with Stephen Webster, London: Routledge, 2017.

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