The 21st Century Science Challenge: Communication with the Public

On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.

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Bill Dutton and JIN Jianbin at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, 17 Sept 2017

Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.

Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining.[1] However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan.[2] And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.

Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.

The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.

However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.

Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.

But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted   through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.[3]

However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.

How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.

Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.

Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.

Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.

We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.

So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.

Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.

References

[1] See: https://www.nap.edu/read/21798/chapter/4#12

[2] See: https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/annabel-scott/pew-poll-majority-republicans-think-colleges-have-negative-impact-us

[3] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

 

The Ascendance of Symbolic Politics: An Explanation and Consequence of Gridlock

Politicians in American and world politics are finding themselves in gridlocks over real policy change. Unable to make decisions on fundamental policies shaping the reallocation of resources, whether it be in the US Senate or the UN Security Council. This gridlock in real policy decisions makes symbolic politics the one and only game to play, leading politicians to make symbolic appeals to their bases of support through a variety of gestures that have no likely outcome on policy change. In fact, these symbolic appeals further undermine the potential for real change.

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Source: mtviewmirror.com

Increasingly, this appears to be a vicious cycle that is in part a consequence of policy gridlock, and in part an explanation of this gridlock. How can this vicious cycle be broken? Let me explain and give a couple of current examples.

Murray Edelman (1967, 1986) wrote a seminal book, entitled The Symbolic Uses of Politics, in which he clarified the differences between what he called “symbolic” versus the politics of real, tangible change. As he put it (1986: 4): “… the most cherished forms of popular participation in government are largely symbolic, …”, in that they do not confer any tangible benefits, such as allocating resources.

In contemporary terms, symbolic politics would cover appeals to ‘make America great again’ (Donald Trump). Real politics would entail tangible changes in budgets, law or policy that would accomplish such goals, such as programs to build new infrastructure. From the other side of the aisle, since the 2016 election, symbolic politics is reflected to appeals to ‘resist’ the Trump Administration, while real politics would be more focused on achieving Democratic Party goals. One might think that the symbolic and real are complementary, but not in today’s political context.

Take one recent example: the politics of confirming Neil Gorsuch for the US Supreme Court on April 7, 2017. From the announcement of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination on January 31st to the day of the nomination, Democrats in the Senate opposed his confirmation, in part in response to the earlier opposition to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and in part in response to expectations that Gorsuch would take conservative position on critical cases before the court. Nevertheless, the partisan arithmetic of the Senate made it clear that Gorsuch would be nominated with or without the support of the Democratic Party, given the potential to change the rules in the Senate that required 60 percent of the Senate to confirm a nominee to the court. Rather than compromise, and allow a number of Senators to vote for the nomination, and preserve the rules of the Senate, the party held firm, leading the Republicans to vote the rule change and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The battle had not real impact on the outcome – Gorsuch would have been nominated in any case, but the strategy allowed members of the Democratic Party to tell their constituents that they opposed the confirmation. This was a symbolic appeal.

A more general example is the focus on personalities versus policy. Real politics requires negotiation and horse trading over legislative or executive actions. To accomplish aims in real politics, you need to be able to work with the opposition. The art of negotiation does not lead negotiators to attack individuals personally, only to critique their policies, not their personal character. The degree that politics is all about personal attacks on individuals is another symptom of the move towards symbolic politics. Playing symbolic politics you win support by attacking the right people, but this makes working with these individuals less likely, thereby undermining real political bargaining and negotiation. Again, symbolic politics is becoming the enemy of real political negotiation and compromise.

The Tea Party movement in the Republic Party seemed to be all about symbolic politics as it had little likelihood of effecting real policy change beyond the potential to block any change at all. If you thought the ascendance of the Republican Party might have led to real political compromises among Republicans and Democrats on policy, it was perhaps discouraging to see the “Resist” movement arising among the Democrats, poised to oppose any Presidential initiative of the Trump Administration.

In both cases, when unable to effect real policy change in line with the Tea Party or Resist, the organizers chose to make symbolic appeals to their base of voters, contributors, and other supporters by symbolically opposing the opposition. The question is whether these symbolic stances actually fuel gridlock on real policy choices.

Symbolic appeals do not need a legislative majority. At the end of the day, however, the voters appear willing to support candidates who trade in symbolic politics. They are not throwing the rascals out for not accomplishing legislative or policy agendas. They are punishing – or are seen to punish – candidates who do not stay on message. So symbolic politics and the gridlock it reinforces must be put right at the feet of voters to tolerate this new pattern of do nothing, say anything, politics.

What can be done? Stop supporting those who don’t deliver on real policy agendas. Don’t give contributions to groups making appeals on symbolic initiatives.

References

http://mtviewmirror.com/animal-farm-symbolic-politics/

Murray Edelman (1967, 1985), The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Indiana: University of Illinois Press. 

American Political Discourse: The Collapse of Civility and Commonsense Negotiating Strategies

Two aspects of contemporary political discourse in America seem to undermine the aims of all stakeholders. These aspects are apparent on social media, orchestrated campaigns, such as via email platforms, and on most major media with the one extraordinary exception of public broadcasting.

UnknownThe first is civility. Too often, all parties in political debate are increasingly lacking civility. Too often, individuals seem to believe that they need to be remarkably rude, shocking, or exaggerated in their insults and claims about one another in order to be heard. This person is a fascist, liar, bully, and so on. There is quite the opposite of the wisdom embedded in many traditions, such as of the British parliament, for example, to refer to others in Parliament as one’s Honorable Friend, or Right Honorable Friend. Vulgar name-calling and insults are the stock and trade of our politicians and increasingly our highest-paid media pundits. It may be the media equivalent of click-bait, but it is absolutely poisonous to a negotiation.

The second is an absence of minimal commonsense. In politics, a rational political actor wants to achieve some policy objective, such as a vote or other decision. This is not necessarily the art of making a deal, but it does require some art of negotiation. If people thought one minute about politics being a process of negotiation, they should try to avoid putting the party they are negotiating with on the defensive. Calling someone a traitor, liar, or another derogatory name is a good way to start a fight, not a negotiation.

Perhaps the aim is to get attention, rather than achieve any policy objective. But if policy change is a goal, I have long subscribed the sage advice of Roger Fisher, Will Ury, and Bruce Patton’s popular book, entitled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), such as the need to separate people from the problem. For instance, one might focus on how we get out of this box, rather than Bill says we should do x, and Nancy says we should do y. American politics is almost exclusively focused on the Republicans want to do x, and so the Democrats want to do y, or vice versa. Completely the wrong strategy. My work on the role of modeling public policy decisions found that this was the secret ingredient of successful modeling – contestants became focused on the assumptions underpinning the model, rather than the policy preferences of the contestants (Dutton, W., and Kraemer, K. (1985) Modeling as Negotiating. Norwood NJ: Ablex). But one cannot focus on the problem when the lack of civility leads everyone to become mired in the mud fights among the contestants. They need to put their gloves ‘on’ in the political arena.

I don’t know if it is possible to reform the processes underpinning policy gridlock in the United States. It is becoming obvious that a change of political party fortunes has not made a difference. However,  a good start would be to focus on the very basics – how contestants talk to and about one another. Without a more civilized discourse, the art of negotiation and politics will be lost in a growing obsession with getting attention.

 

Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back

I was on the brink of applauding the White House for challenging some traditions of the daily press briefings in opening to more news organizations and adding the Skype seats, only to then learn of some mainstream news organizations not being welcomed in the room. So instead of diversifying access, this seems to be a blatant political reconfiguration of access to the briefings.

Two Steps Forward

The White House Press Briefings have been slow to change, and seem antiquated in the face of new media. For this reason, I was pleased to learn of two developments.

First, there were changes in the seating. Since 1981, 49 seats were assigned to reporters to be present at the briefings by the White House Correspondent’s Association. The Association is arms length from the White House, so less open to charges of any partisan or other political bias. However, the mainstream press dominates the Association, which are assigned the prime seats in the front and are, by tradition, normally called on first. The new press Secretary, Sean Spicer, has admitted more reporters to the briefings albeit without assigned seats. He and the President have also made clear moves to not call on the mainstream media first, and in fact, they have made an effort to by pass mainstream correspondents for new arrivals to the briefing. This is a good step toward diversifying access to the news, diminishing privileged access by the elite press, and empowering more media outlets. However, ignoring the mainstream press in answering questions is of course a worrisome bias if continued. th

Secondly, the White House enabled two so-called Skype channels for virtual and interactive participation by remote journalists. I have never been present in any White House briefing, but it appears that the set up permits about eight or more remote journalists to participate. This seems like a long overdue reform enabled by the Internet and the new media environment. Again, this diversifies and builds on the number of journalists with more direct access to the briefings. It also helps incrementally to escape from the locational bias of the press by enabling participation by correspondents anywhere in the world, not just physically in Washington D.C.

So far, some promising reforms. But then …

One Giant Leap Back

On Friday, February 24th, Sean Spicer ‘barred journalists from the New York Time and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing’ (Davis and Grynbaum 2017: A1). In addition to the Times, other press stopped from attending included the BBC, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. According to reports, other correspondents, from the Time magazine, and the Associated Press – which traditional had the first question – decided not to attend as a protest against this action (Davis and Grynbaum 2017).

In my view, it is okay to expand access to the briefings, even if this might dilute the role of those who have assigned seats, particularly in the front rows. It is great to broaden access to those who are remote from Washington DC. But once the White House restricts access by strong press organizations, and correspondents, it taints the entire process. Even if you believe the press is increasingly biased by partisan coverage, the remedy is not to punish the opposition, but to ensure that there is a more diverse and pluralistic range of sources with access to the briefings. Create a more diverse range of news sources, rather than a more politically tailored set of news sources. These restrictions will undermine the coverage by the press excluded, but also the coverage by those who are included, but become less trusted as objective sources.

References

Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.

Wright, Bruce. (2017), “White House Stops Press from Attending Media Briefing’, International Business Times, Yahoo! News, 24 February: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-stops-press-attending-201309162.html

Russian Hacking and the Certainty Trough

Views on Russian Hacking: In a Certainty Trough?

I have been amazed by the level of consensus, among politicians, the press and the directors of security agencies, over the origins and motivations behind the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Seldom are security agencies willing to confirm or deny security allegations, much less promote them*, even when cyber security experts vary in their certainty over the exact details. Of course there are many interpretations of what we are seeing, including speaking arguments that this is simply a responsible press, partisan politics, reactions to the President-elect, or a clear demonstration of what has been called, in a study of a thread of Israeli journalism, ‘patriotic’ journalism.* For example, you can hear journalists and politicians not only demonizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the messenger, but also arguing that those who do not accept the consensus are virtually enemies of the state.

One useful theoretical perspective that might help make sense of this unfolding display of consensus is the concept of the ‘certainty trough’, anchored in Donald MacKensie’s research** on missile systems and those who had different levels of certainty about their performance, such as their accuracy in hitting the targets they are designed to strike. He was trying to explain how the generals, for example, could be so certain of their performance, when those most directly involved in developing the missile systems were less certain of how well they will perform. screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-21-25

The figure applies MacKenzie’s framework to the hacking case. My contention is that you can see aspects of the certainty trough with respect to accounts of Russian hacking of John Podesta’s emails, which led to damaging revelations about the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton Foundation during the election, such as in leading to the resignation of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC post. On the one hand, there are security experts, most directly involved in, and knowledgeable about, these issues, with less certainty than the politicians and journalists about how sophisticated these hacks of an email account were, and whether they can attribute clear intentions to an ecology of multiple actors. At the other extreme, the public is the least knowledgeable about cyber security, and likely to have less certainty over what happened (see Figure). Put simply, it is not the case that the more you know the more certain you are about the facts of the case.

The upshot of this possibility is that the journalists and politicians involved in this issue should not demonize those who are less certain about who did what to whom in this case. The critics of the skeptics might well be sitting in the certainty trough.

References

*ICA (2017), ‘Intellligence Community Assessment, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’, Intelligence Community Assessment, 01D, 6 January: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

**Avashalom Ginosar, ‘Understanding Patriotic Journalism: Culture, Ideology and Professional Behavior’, see: https://www.academia.edu/20610610/Understanding_Patriotic_Journalism_Culture_Ideology_and_Professional_Behavior

***for Donald MacKensie’s work on the certainty trough, see: http://modeldiscussion.blogspot.com/2007/01/mackenzies-certainty-trough-nuclear.html or his summary of this work in Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. (Oxford: OUP), pages 43-46.

Society and the Internet: a new reader for courses

A new book edited by Mark Graham and myself is in print and available for courses: Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives. It is published by Oxford University Press, and material about the book is available on their website at: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199662005.do

How is society being shaped by the diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? By bringing together leading research that addresses some of the most significant cultural, economic, and political roles of the Internet, this volume introduces students to a core set of readings that address this question in specific social and institutional contexts.

Internet Studies is a burgeoning new field, which has been central to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), an innovative multi-disciplinary department at the University of Oxford. Society and the Internet builds on the OII’s evolving series of lectures on society and the Internet. The series has been edited to create a reader to supplement upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses that seek to introduce students to scholarship focused on the implications of the Internet for networked societies around the world.

The chapters of the reader are rooted in a variety of disciplines, but all directly tackle the powerful ways in which the Internet is linked to political, social, cultural, and economic transformations in society. This book will be a starting point for anyone with a serious interest in the factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.  The book begins with an introduction by the editors, which provides a brief history of the Internet and Web and its study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The chapters are grouped into five focused sections: (I) Internet Studies of Everyday Life, (II) Information and Culture on the Line, (III) Networked Politics and Government, (IV) Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economies, and (V) Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures.

A full table of contents is below:

Society and the Internet How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives

Manuel Castells: Foreword

Mark Graham and William H. Dutton: Introduction

Part I. Internet Studies Of Everyday Life

1: Aleks Krotoski: Inventing the Internet: Scapegoat, Sin Eater, and Trickster

2: Grant Blank And William Dutton: Next Generation Internet Users: A New Digital Divide

3: Bernie Hogan And Barry Wellman: The Conceptual Foundations of Social Network Sites and the Emergence of the Relational Self-Portrait

4: Victoria Nash: The Politics of Children s Internet Use

5: Lisa Nakamura: Gender and Race Online

Part II. Information And Culture On The Line

6: Mark Graham: Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour

7: Gillian Bolsover, William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, And Soumitra Dutta: China and the US in the New Internet World: A Comparative Perspective

8: Nic Newman, William H. Dutton, And Grant Blank: Social Media and the News: Implications for the Press and Society

9: Sung Wook Ji And David Waterman: The Impact of the Internet on Media Industries: An Economic Perspective

10: Ralph Schroeder: Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities?

Part III. Networked Politics And Governments

11: Miriam Lips: Transforming Government by Default?

12: Stephen Coleman And Jay Blumler: The Wisdom of Which Crowd? On the Pathology of a Digital Democracy Initiative for a Listening Government

13: Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon: Online Social Networks and Bottom-up Politics

14: Helen Margetts, Scott A. Hale, Taha Yasseri: Big Data and Collective Action

15: Elizabeth Dubois And William H. Dutton: Empowering Citizens of the Internet Age: The Role of a Fifth Estate

Part IV: Networked Businesses, Industries AND Economies

16: Greg Taylor: Scarcity of Attention for a Medium of Abundance: An Economic Perspective

17: Richard Susskind: The Internet in the Law: Transforming Problem-Solving and Education

18: Laura Mann: The Digital Divide and Employment: The Case of the Sudanese Labour Market

19: Mark Graham: A Critical Perspective on the Potential of the Internet at the Margins of the Global Economy

Part V. Technological And Regulatory Histories And Futures

20: Eli M. Noam: Next-Generation Content for Next-Generation Networks

21: Christopher Millard: Data Privacy in the Clouds

22: Laura Denardis: The Social Media Challenge to Internet Governance

23: Yorick Wilks: Beyond the Internet and Web

Let us know what you think of our reader, and thanks for your interest.

New Position as Quello Chair at MSU

After 12 great years at Oxford, I am delighted to be joining MSU as their new Quello Professor. Not sure how my former USC Trojan colleagues will react to me joining the Spartans!  The current Director of the Quello Center, Professor Steve Wildman, a recent Chief Economist at the FCC, posted a much appreciated announcement of the appointment. I’ll be joining MSU in August 2014 and look forward to staying in touch with you over this and related blogs in the future. One of my goals will be to put the Internet and Web into the center of a forward strategy for building the Quello Center’s role in the new digital world of communication research, policy and regulation. My work as a co-principal on the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre will continue at MSU, as will my work on the Fifth Estate, partly through the support of a project on collaboration at the DTU (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet) as well as through support of the Quello Center.  At MSU, I will hold the James H. Quello Chair of Media and Information Policy.

Announcement by MSU http://cas.msu.edu/oxford-university-professor-named-quello-chair/