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Like Cattle to the Stall: How to Claim the Public Agrees with "Consensus" Science

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Good news: scientists attempted to engage the public about a controversial issue involving science and public policy. Now for the bad news.

This true story is not about evolution; it's about stem cell research, another hot-button issue of concern to scientists and the public. The lessons learned, however, can apply to any similar attempt at "public engagement."

In PLoS Biology, Alison Mohr and Sujatha Raman analyze a case of "Representing the Public in Public Engagement: The Case of the 2008 UK Stem Cell Dialogue." Public engagement (PE) sounds like a nice idea. In practice, though, the outcome can be rigged:

Efforts to engage the public in science take many forms, yet in many cases, "engagement" is a means toward acceptance rather than true participation. In 2008, the largest ever public engagement (PE) exercise sponsored by UK Research Councils was held. The Stem Cell Dialogue (SCD), designed to identify the range of views and concerns amongst the wider public about stem cell research, was jointly supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), and Sciencewise. The SCD revealed high levels of public support for stem cell science and technology, according to the official press release [1], and thus seems to validate the traditional reasons offered for conducting PE around cutting-edge science: that engaging the wider public in dialogue at an early stage can help scientists communicate the motivations for their research, including its expected societal benefits, assuage potential ethical concerns, avert damaging controversies, and secure public acceptance. But, is this instrumental rationale--engagement toward a predetermined goal--sufficient? Can it offer the democratic legitimacy that underlies the recent turn to this type of "upstream" engagement? And does the SCD as it actually unfolded merit the summary finding of public support reported in the press release? In this paper, we draw from our work as official evaluators of the SCD (see Box 1), and recent debates on the purpose of engagement, to ask: how should we understand the "public" in PE; why is PE important for both society and science; and what lessons should we take from actual PE exercises? (Emphasis added.)
Good questions. What "public" and what "engagement"? As it turns out, Mohr and Raman found that the sample selected for participating in the "engagement" was tailored to rubber-stamp the views of the organizers, predominantly scientists. "How the 'public' is defined in various initiatives depends on the rationale for asking for public input," they write. "This in turn affects how members of the public are brought together and represented." Furthermore, the structure of the event marginalized those who might be vocal critics of the consensus, and steered the participants like cattle to the stall.

So what was the rationale for encouraging public engagement at the SCD? Was it simply "to enhance public trust in novel areas of science and acceptance of the future technologies or to legitimize research policy decisions"? Read on and you decide. Mohr and Raman are not opposed to public engagement. In theory, it sounds wonderful:

From a normative perspective, the process of PE is in itself a good thing in that the public should be consulted on decisions in which they have a stake. From a substantive standpoint, PE generates manifold perspectives, visions, and values that are relevant to the science and technologies in question, and could potentially lead to more socially robust outcomes (which may differ from the outcomes envisaged by sponsors or scientists).
In practice, though, organizers of the SCD used an instrumental approach that attempted to persuade the representatives to agree with them, thus achieving an air of legitimacy. By carefully selecting the representatives of "the public," and controlling how they interacted, leaders were able to claim they have public support for what they already agreed to do.

That's what happened at SCD, Mohr and Raman claim. "The SCD illustrates how competing rationales for representing the public can lead to particular outcomes that conflict with the democratic ideals of PE." The organizers claimed to "engage the diverse public about developments in stem cell research, to account for their views in policy development," and to "identify the range of views and concerns about the science and ethics of stem cell research amongst the wider public and their societal context."

Nice, but look who they left out:

The lack of alternative or more critical/skeptical perspectives of counter-experts (e.g., advocacy/pro-life group, religious group, journalistic, or National Health Service viewpoints) limited the range of participants' discussion and increased the potential for obtaining positively biased indications of public approval and acceptance.
This happened despite the organizers' stated aims to employ an unbiased statistical sample: "Two hundred participants were recruited according to the demographic profile of the workshop locations to reflect quotas set for age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity." Questions on the phone interviews tipped off the callers to respondents who might cause trouble. It's not that they excluded people with pro-life or religious views; they relegated them to less influential roles.
Counter-experts were mostly invisible in the public workshops, as they were defined in terms of religious/faith groups and pro-life groups and consigned to the external stakeholder group. Hence, the SCD can be criticized in the sense that it did not create conditions for substantive disagreements or counter perspectives to emerge in the dialogue process.
This can be seen in how they defined "stakeholders." One might think every member of the public has a stake in ethical matters, but like pigs in Animal Farm, some stakeholders are more equal than others:
The sponsors considered the integration of stakeholder and public voices to be one of the strengths of the SCD's methodology. In principle, such a framework could help elicit the implicit ethical assumptions of scientific and non-scientific positions, and facilitate open dialogue. Except, BMRB used findings from preceding telephone interviews with 49 stakeholders -- broadly categorized as research scientists, clinicians, social scientists, ethicists, commercial and pharmaceutical organizations, religious and faith groups, medical charities, pro-life groups, funders, government, and regulators -- to structure the public's deliberations in the workshops. Thus, participants were carved out at the outset into "stakeholders" and the "public" and were engaged differently. The artificial separation of "stakeholders" and the "public" -- and the presumption that the public do not have an equivalent stake in the technology -- meant that diverse perspectives, visions, and values could not emerge through the process of dialogue. Instead, the structure promoted deficit notions of experts as bearers of purely "scientific" information and the public as bearers of purely "value" commitments, creating a hierarchy that hindered genuine deliberation -- in keeping with instrumental ends, such as acquiring public understanding or acceptance.
Worse, the leaders of the dialogues in the workshop sessions treated the participants as subjects, not architects or framers of the dialogue. While pretending to want to hear minority viewpoints, they acted as facilitators, not true discussion leaders. They had an agenda: steer the public participants toward acceptance of the consensus.
The homogeneity of responses appears to have been shaped by the role played by experts in framing the discussion. Framing played a significant role in bounding the discussions as participants showed a strong tendency to follow and explore the main issues raised in the experts' presentations.
Other tricks were perpetrated to steer the public one way:
We noted significant variations in the responsiveness of participants to particular experts who were more effective communicators. We also observed considerable homogeneity among the general views and attitudes of the scientists and clinicians, save for embryonic stem cell scientists and adult stem cell scientists. We observed that the scientists/clinicians were typically in favor of stem cell science and the ethicists/social scientists were generally reluctant to criticize it. There was an absence of experts willing to discuss the problems that have already been encountered with stem cell research and regenerative medicine....
In other words, the SCF's exercise in "public engagement" was a sham, orchestrated to create an illusion of public acceptance for a scientific consensus in favor of ethically questionable stem cell research practices. Event organizers could report to the press that they engaged the public and found general acceptance of their views.

Mohr and Raman recognize the pitfalls of any kind of public engagement, even when drafted with the best of intentions. But they had to conclude the SCF failed at it. Their best lesson from the experience was for PE event organizers to learn to treat participants as architects of the consensus, not mere subjects of it:

Only in that way can the substantive conditions for uncertainty, complexity, and contingency be sustained and strengthened against the desire for predetermined outcomes and institutional pressures. In this sense it is useful to redefine the purpose of PE, not as a structured process in which initial conditions are established through a defined methodology that generates desired outcomes, but as an emergent process in which outcomes--in form, content, and number--are inherently uncertain, reflecting the indeterminate nature of public interactions. Accordingly, PE motivated by substantive and normative imperatives, undertaken as one element of a wider process of technology assessment, is more likely to fulfill the democratic ideals of PE.
Although the ethics of stem cell research is somewhat tangential to our concerns at ENV, this story is offered as a warning. Much of Darwinian political activism centers on pushing the idea of a "scientific consensus." Like stem cell research, evolution is a controversial subject requiring public engagement. Seeing how powerful leaders can pretend to have the public on their side, we should all be forewarned should evolutionists come knocking with an invitation to engage in public dialogue.

Don't misunderstand. We favor engagement and debate, and seek it out. Usually it is Darwinists who shy from such encounters. Even so, forewarned is forearmed.

Image credit: agrilifetoday/Fickr.