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Citizens or Experts: Who Should We Listen To?

Many public policy issues are extraordinarily complex. Many discussions about policy issues result in participants sharing their perspectives, many of which are uninformed. This is particularly true about issues involving scientific questions, but this can also be the case in many other complex topic areas, such as the economy and other social issues. Thus, often the participants shed more heat on the subject rather than light, debating point versus counterpoint. For example, see some of the alternative viewpoints on the Energy Issues page, particularly about nuclear power and climate change. So, what are we to do? The following may be helpful.

Except from the Understanding Public Judgment on Science Intensive Issues: San Diego Dialogues on Community Water Fluoridation, Executive Summary:

“The research findings reported here suggest a number of points that can help interested decision-makers engage the public more fully around the issue of water fluoridation, and more generally around science intensive issues:

·         Build on common ground. Despite their differences, participants in every dialogue – supporters and opponents of CWF [Community Water Fluoridation ] alike – consistently agreed on a series of key points:  . . .

·         Facts alone will not change minds. The traditional information-driven campaign by itself is not adequate, especially in a climate of mistrust. Members of the public make up their minds not on the basis of information alone, but also on the basis of deeper concerns that are shaped by values, emotions, and deeply-held beliefs. The public can easily tune out information that counteracts their worldview; this tendency is even stronger when mistrust runs high. Decision-makers need to focus on understanding deeper public concerns and helping citizens to work through the choices and tradeoffs involved.

·         Spin intensifies mistrust. When people feel they are being spun they become more frustrated and mistrustful, as well as more resistant to change. Excessive claims from either side tended to backfire when presented to those who were not already strong supporters of that viewpoint. Citizens’ ability to see through spin, and the damage that the resulting mistrust can cause, should not be underestimated.  


·         Transparency about interests is essential. Participants repeatedly asked for honesty and transparency from experts on both sides of the issue. When assessing an argument, they wanted to know who was making it and why. Advocates’ motivations came under constant scrutiny; participants were concerned about whether experts were objective or were marshalling evidence in only one direction.


·         “Common sense” resonates. Participants showed a consistent and pervasive preference for “common-sense” arguments rather than technical data, and this was particularly true when mistrust ran high. When technical data is potentially tainted by spin, most people turn to information that meshes with their intuitive sense of how the world works.


·         A different approach can help build trust. These ChoiceDialogues showed the limitations of trying to move the public with a data-driven approach (based on scientific authority) or with social marketing and advocacy techniques, when the fundamental issue is trust. In these circumstances a different approach is needed. Such an approach focuses not on correcting factual misconceptions or emphasizing positive messages, but on understanding public concerns and building on common ground. Experts and advocates need to acknowledge that these concerns exist and to treat them seriously. Simply trying to correct factual misunderstandings without addressing underlying concerns actually increases mistrust rather than reducing it.

 The ChoiceDialogues showed that maintaining trust is the key to building public support for a public health change like CWF. To do this, public health experts need to position themselves as trusted advisors on how best to deal with a shared community challenge rather than advocates for one viewpoint or outcome – with CWF as one possible means to that end, rather than an end in itself. In effect they must shift their focus from “how can we win?” to “how can we help the public make up its mind?”

More generally, scientists can no longer expect the public simply to defer to their expertise when controversial issues are on the table. Even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus, a handful of rogue studies or misleading results quoted out of context can derail decades of peer-reviewed data. And countering this with a “spin vs. spin” approach actually undercuts the authority of science in the public eye. This is especially true in the current climate of mistrust, where public skepticism extends to nearly every social institution: from politics and government to business, academia, religion and science.

Resolving the many science-intensive questions that challenge us today will require finding better ways to understand the public’s values and frameworks, respond more effectively to public concerns, and build on common ground.”

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