So-called “social representations” (Moscovici, 1984) are interpretations we all use in everyday life to give a meaning to reality. They originate in our life in society, in the context of groups, in the media and in public debates. Every social representation is conventional and associates a meaning with an image. For example, when we think about cloning, the image of a sheep will come automatically to mind. Moreover, the image of the sheep brings with it a system of relatively fixed meanings that were defined through public debates before our act of interpretation. When we use social representations we put labels onto reality in order to reassure ourselves about the unknown, and to make the new and unconventional seem more commonplace. However, we do so in ways that often do not follow the precepts of rationality and are shaped by socially defined opinions and values.
Social Representations are important because they tell us something about the way we give a meaning to reality and to everyday life. It would therefore be useful to see how they operate in the process of risk assessment in science-related crises.
In recent years scientific crises have gained the attention of a growing audience, and scientific controversies, especially those involving biotechnology, have achieved considerable media coverage. However, the growing presence of scientists in the media seems to run counter to the principles scientists themselves use to validate scientific discoveries. The scientific method envisages the public disclosure of evidence and theories so they can be subjected to testing and/or falsification by peers as a necessary part of the process of determining the truth, without it envisaging any interference by other social actors.
However, in the event of a science-related crisis, scientific facts tend to spill over the borders of the scientific community and processes of interaction between science and society come into play. These processes are not one way, as, on the one side, scientists may address the public in an attempt to resolve their internal controversies, and on the other side, the public addresses scientists, and with them policy-makers, whenever it feels that it is confronting any of a variety of risks posed by scientific discoveries. Policy-makers are crucial actors in this context, since science has close links with the political sphere, not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of the legal boundaries placed on research.
Taking this as a starting point, one important feature that is immediately apparent in the public debates on scientific issues is that the subjects debated are often highly controversial and, moreover, they lead to a lot of misunderstandings between the actors involved. For policy-makers this implies the difficult task of finding a balance between the need for reliable scientific advice and the need to build public trust. It would therefore seem to be worth taking a closer look at how these processes of social interaction take place in order to have a clearer idea of how to handle them.
Science, Mass Media and Social Representations
The accusation of irrationality is frequently voiced by scientists criticising scientific debates in the media. Scientists are quite often upset by the way their work is apparently exposed to the public’s judgment. In particular they are often annoyed by public criticism because they feel that people outside the scientific community are ill-equipped to pass value judgments on their work. One factor underlying this is the idea that scientific facts are supposed to be uncontroversial and “objective” and so beyond the scope of moral or cultural feelings or opinions. In other words, scientists usually believe that the supposed certainty of scientific facts can in some way be “borrowed” by the public discussion and used by the social actors involved in the interaction in public arenas. Public debates, however, follow rules that are not precisely those proper to scientific rationality.
From a different perspective, the certainty and immutability of scientific facts are actually rare conditions even in the context of the production of knowledge, not only in the context of public discussions. In their activity, scientists are constantly engaged in negotiating the boundaries between each other and between science and society. When something goes wrong and there is an internal crisis, scientists some times address the public directly (Bucchi, 1998). This process takes place especially when a scientist has taken on the role of a heretic and stands against the dominant paradigm in a way that he undermines its theoretical basis, for example by presenting some controversial research data. In such a context, to turn to the public is a way for scientists to achieve a new balance and to rearrange their relationships. Additionally, there are other and more frequent reasons for which scientific facts can appear in public arenas. During its process of social re-construction and re-definition, what will become a “scientific fact” has to gain the support of actors who are interested in it for various reasons (i.e. economic reasons, political reasons, cultural reasons and so on) and who are external to the scientific community. Thus, supposedly “pure” scientific facts have to move out of the scientific context if they are to appeal to a variety of social actors. This movement has a price: scientific facts have to undergo a partial change in their meanings according to the needs of the new actors involved. These new meanings can be slightly or even very different from the interpretations the promoters gave them, but are necessary to let the “scientific fact” grow and gain in strength, supported by a wider network of “allies” (Latour, 1987). The mass media, along with other actors, are a crucial part of these networks; indeed, they are the place where meanings and interpretations are constantly negotiated.
So, once the audience has been exposed to these issues, the scientific fact becomes open to a lot of interpretations by different social actors (Neresini, 2000). When a scientific fact appears in the public arena these new interpretations are shaped by the mental schemes provided by the working social representations. As mentioned at the start of this article, social representations (Moscovici, 1984) are models that enable us to frame reality with a simple and clear purpose, to give us the cognitive resources to face the unknown. And what can be more unknown than a scientific discovery?
To be active, social representations need to be shared by a group of people. They operate on the basis of consensus, because they give “points of view” on reality that are socially shared. Obviously, very often Social Representations may seem irrational and illogical, but their importance lies in their strong cultural background. To ignore them, as scientists often seem inclined to do, may have a strong negative influence on the whole process of communication of science, because it inevitably leads to misunderstandings and to a decline in the public trust in science and, for policy-makers, in scientific advice.
Risk Assessment and Scientific Advice
The use of social representations in public debates on scientific issues is extremely important because in such a context scientific knowledge loses its “privileges” and its power to explain reality, becoming instead just one point of view among others in that context, especially when we are talking about perceptions of risk. In other words, the public’s attitude to risk tends to be influenced, for example, by cultural, moral, political or economic arguments as well as scientific arguments, because social representations do not come from science alone, but from society as a whole. Obviously policy-makers need to be aware of these specific aspects of the debates on scientific issues because the public’s perception of risk relates directly to the degree of public trust in institutions.
These issues are part of the wider debate on the nature of risks in (post-)modern societies. The growing awareness that modernity has brought with it not only development and welfare, but also new problems and therefore new risks, has enabled sociologists such as Giddens (1990) to recognize anxiety as a key feature of contemporary societies. In this context, understanding the way society assesses risk becomes a way of understanding the inner nature of society itself. And in our societies risks are assessed in public debates that are mainly channelled through the mass media. In this context communication plays a crucial role, because is through communication that the boundaries between what risks a community is willing to accept and what instead constitutes an unacceptable risk for society as a whole are constantly being negotiated. In the case of scientific communication, citizens are supposed to express their opinions through the mediation of their presumed spokesmen, namely associations, organisations, parties, social movements, and so on. Thus, risk assessment managed through public debate, and not just through scientific advice, becomes the basis on which to achieve genuine democratic participation. This becomes even more important if we bear in mind that science is one of the most powerful institutions in society and that, despite the fact that the applications of technology are so widespread, science tends to leave other institutions and the public out of its processes and decisions (Feyerabend, 1978). However, since science is so important and crucial in modern societies, it becomes necessary for policy-makers to let citizens choose between different technologies, and therefore between different potential risks if they are to be able to retain public trust in the event of a crisis.
Besides, it is important to stress the different ways in which scientists and the public usually measure risks. In general the public tends not to use scientific/rational arguments when deciding about risks, while scientists emphasise the need to use scientific rationality and evidence to assess risks. But in some circumstances scientific knowledge itself is scarce or controversial, rendering it unsuitable for use -at least without controversy- as advice for policy-making. For example, in the debate over GMOs, scientists state that at the moment there are no data that can confirm GMOs to be unsafe, but this is not viewed as being a sufficient assurance for large parts of the public, because no one is able to state categorically that no evidence of the dangers of GMOs might not appear in the future. This places scientists in a position where they are no longer considered able to assess the risks that are related to, or spring from, scientific/technological pursuits.
Moreover, simply providing yet more scientific information has also shown itself to be inadequate as a means of allaying the public’s fears, since, as recent research has shown, public dislike of biotechnology, particularly in agriculture, if anything, grows as people become better informed about it (Bucchi and Neresini, 2002). This confirms that more information does not necessarily mean more effective communication, and that good information is a necessary but not sufficient pre-requisite of good communication.
Science has a crucial role in our societies, and therefore in governments’ agendas. Even if scientists often claim independence from the rest of society and support the ideal of “pure” knowledge, the scientific community is closely related to politics, to economic institutions and to the public, in both top-down and bottom-up processes. So it is possible for society to have a voice in what, in how and in why science does what it does, and debates regarding scientific facts are clearly ever more present in the media.
When a “scientific fact” becomes an issue for society, science is no longer purely science, but starts to incorporate elements of opinion. No matter what the nature of these elements (i.e. moral, cultural, political or economic), they become as important as the scientific viewpoint on reality. So, as well as making better use of an impartial and transparent science advisory process, when they make their decisions, policy-makers are supposed to consider other kinds of “rationalities” besides scientific rationality, since these different “rationalities” are expressed in public debates and represent the point of view of the social actors concerned with the issue. In practical terms, this includes recognizing as valid the different ways the public assesses risks arising as a result of new scientific and technological applications, even if they do not follow scientific rationality and they are merely social representations. In the era of science-based crises, it is no longer possible to count on there being automatic trust in scientific methods and aims, rather this trust has to be sought/reaffirmed though a process of negotiation.
Bucchi M. , Science and the Media, Routledge, London-New York, 1998, p. 1-34.
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Neresini F. , And Man Descended from the Sheep. The Public Debate on Cloning in the Italian Press, in “Public Understanding of Science”, 9, 2000.
Published on the website: http://www.jrc.es/home/report/english/articles/vol82/SCI2E826.htm