[Paleopsych] Helga Nowotny: High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society
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Helga Nowotny: High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society
Science 308 (2005.5.20): 1117-8
The author is chair of EURAB, the European Research Advisory Board of the
European Commission, and Fellow at the Wissenschaftszentrum Wien, A-1080
Vienna, Austria. E-mail: helga.nowotny at wzw.at
Through the ongoing proliferation of images and symbols, information overload
and hi-tech-driven media, science increasingly communicates with the public in
ways that are deliberately designed and intended to meet the public (and
political) imagination. At the same time, the public is led to imagine what the
sciences and scientists mean and say. The appeal to the imagination can be
pursued through different avenues. One is that of fiction, a recent example of
which is Michael Crichton's blockbuster The State of Fear (1 ). In his plot,
scientists are colluding with the environmental movement, making up facts when
necessary, in order to support a common cause. In a shrewd move of having
environmental lawyers rehearse possible arguments that the defense might use
against them, he lectures extensively in the guise of the scientific graphs and
footnotes and by presenting whatever else looks like scientific evidence, about
all that is wrong with global warming. It is a mix of science, advocacy, and a
vision of scientists whose idealism leads them astray. It has been on 37
best-seller lists with another book that looks at the impact of environmental
change in a very different way: Jared Diamond's Collapse (2 ), which is based
on a scholarly analysis of a series of case studies of ancient civilizations.
If Crichton's book is taken not as a work of fiction, but becomes equated with
one of fact, like Diamond's, do we not run the risk that trust in science will
be decided by market forces and continuing sales figures? The public has become
accustomed in a media-saturated world to switching between fact and
fiction--but how far does this extend? The question I want to pose is whether
in the desire to communicate with "society," "science" has contributed to a
confusion between facts and fiction, or as the political analyst Yaron Ezrahi
described it, between high-cost and low-cost realities (3 ). Ezrahi
distinguishes between constructs of the world that require heavy investment of
resources, such as time, money, efforts, and skills, and those which engage
fewer resources on the part of those who consume these realities. Scientific
knowledge constructs high-cost reality, usually based on a densely organized
system of concepts, facts, rules, interpretation, methodological skills,
equipment, and evidence. As such, the knowledge is not directly accessible to
laypersons and remains esoteric. Low-cost realities may be expensive to
produce, but are "cheap" to consume. They depend on the immediate experience of
the flow of images and sounds. They become the shared means by which the public
conceives, imagines, remembers, thinks, and relates or acts in politics. They
allow the public to simulate the witnessing of real events without the trouble
of being actually there. Low-cost reality is a spectacularly successful
commercial product in our culture.
Richard Feynman once used the analogy (4 ) of a Mayan priest who had mastered
the numerical concept of subtraction and other elaborate mathematical rules. He
used them to predict the rising and setting of Venus. However, to explain his
approach to an audience who did not know what subtraction is, the priest
resorted to counting beans. The important thing, said Feynman, is that it makes
no difference as far as the result is concerned: We can predict the rise of
Venus by counting beans (slow, but easy to understand) or by using the tricky
rules (which are much faster, but it takes years of training to learn them).
However, we have not taken the public through the tedium of bean counting,
nor--apart from some notable exemptions--focused on teaching the tricks.
Instead, we have been proud to re-enact on the public stage the spectacle of
the Maya priest stepping forward before the attentive crowd and announcing the
rise of Venus--while Venus rises indeed under the applause and to the relief of
the viewers. We have learned how to stage such events ourselves and have come
to believe that we thereby render a public service. We have largely engaged in
the construction of low-cost realities that appeal to emotions and the
imagination. There have certainly been charges that selling science as sexy has
gone too far (5), amusing as it may be to explain the magic in Harry Potter in
scientific terms (6 ). Some have said that by turning the Year of Physics de
facto into the Year of Einstein, the point is missed that physics, while
central to our understanding of the Universe, is also central to making useful
and practical things through engineering (7 ). Although it is exhilarating to
think of science's role in extending the frontiers of our knowledge, it is
critical that the public remembers how important science is to their day-to-day
reality. There are critical issues that need to be discussed, although they are
not especially glamorous, such as the ongoing shift between the public nature
of science and the tendency toward its propertization (8 ) or the upcoming
debate about security-oriented research and the potential clash between the
public interest in scientific openness and its security interests. Sexy
communication is not going to be enough to inform good decision-making.
Declining trust in science and scientific experts has been clear in public
controversies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or the bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, as well as in the rejection of
scientific evidence regarding vaccination safety in the UK. The Euro-barometer,
conducted as an EU-wide survey, probes the state of mind of EU citizens and how
they view science and technology. The most recent data are expected to be
published in mid-May and, for the first time, will be commented on by a panel
of experts. The 2001 survey (9 ) revealed that two-thirds of the public do not
feel well-informed about science and technology, and the number of people who
believe in the capacity of science and technology to solve societal problems is
declining. Trust in science in general seems to be on the decline in many
national surveys, although scientists still come out way ahead of politicians
or other public institutions.
There are currently clear examples of research on the frontiers of science
clashing with human beliefs and values. From the United States, voices can be
heard deploring the tendency of politicians to interfere with scientific
agendas in teaching and in research (10 ) and faith-based opposition to the
teaching of evolution and some forms of frontier research, like stem cells
continue to raise serious concern. Luckily, creationism/evolution is not an
issue in Europe, largely due to the centralized education systems in most
countries. However, an analogous situation exists for stem cell research, with
some countries, like Germany and Italy, completely opposed. There will be a
referendum in Italy shortly on stem cell research. The Catholic church urges
the public not to vote, in the hope that the necessary 50% quota will not be
reached, and the referendum will be defeated.
Although we may welcome greater public interest in science, if only to avoid
another backlash in fields like nanotechnology as occurred with GMOs, we must
also confront the thorny issue of how contemporary democracies will deal with
minorities who, on faith-based or other, value-related grounds, refuse any
compromise. There is no reason to believe that Europe will be immune to an
ascendancy of groups who oppose otherwise promising lines of research on the
basis of their value system. If the values dimension is here to stay, it is far
from certain that the usual response of setting up ethical guidelines and
committees will suffice, let alone that any of the efforts to "better
communicate science" will have any effect.
If the goal is a more research-friendly society, one in which research and
innovation become embedded in society and an expression of "the capacity to
aspire" (11 ), we have to explain what research is and how the process of
research is actually carried out. We need to focus more on the processes of
research; on the inherent uncertainty that is part and parcel of it; on how
bottom-up and top-down approaches intersect; on the actual, and not only
idealized, role that users play; and on how research funding agencies work,
both on national and supranational levels. We should explain how research
priorities are set, because it is not nature whispering into the ears of
researchers, but an intricate mixture of opportunities and incentives, of prior
investments and of strategic planning mixed with subversive contingencies. We
would also be better poised to explain to the wider public the difference
between claims or promises made on the part of researchers, depending on
whether these claims have been peer-reviewed or not. How should the public know
about these rules that play such an important part for the scientific
community, see their significance as well as their limitations, unless we
explain how they actually work? Or how should they know about the differences
in scientific cultures, what counts as evidence, or how consensus is reached
with criticism being an essential precondition for moving toward it, if nobody
To observe and explain what scientists are really doing requires that we make
the multiple links of interaction between science and society transparent, as
well as the institutions that mediate and shape science policies. The dialogue
needs to be extended into the world of politics, economics, and culture,
including how scientists are influenced by globalization. There is a need for
additional capacity building so that civil society can become a partner in this
encounter with science. Apart from patient groups or organizations that have
sponsored research into orphan diseases, there has been little organized effort
in Europe so far.
It is only fair to say that much has been accomplished. The initial notion of
public understanding of science as a didactically conceived one-way street
through which scientific literacy is diffused did not miraculously lead to
increased public support for science. It is increasingly being replaced by
concepts of public awareness of science and public engagement with science.
Activities that have been undertaken in this more interactive and outreaching
mode range from the "Physics for taxi drivers" in London (12 ) to the regular
public science festivals occupying their place alongside other, cultural,
festivals. The 16th International Science Festival which has recently occurred
in Edinburgh (13), and the Swiss "Science et Cité" initiatives stand out (14 )
as good examples of forums that encourage discussion and debate. Almost all
member states of the European Union now celebrate European Science Week (15 ).
The European Science Open Forum (ESOF) was a highly successful European event
in Stockholm in 2004 and will be held again in Munich in 2006.
The larger (and richer) research institutions, such as the Max Planck Society
in Germany or the CNRS in France, have set up their own outreach and public
relations units. The current Framework Programme of the EU foresees outreach
activities as an integral part of the contract obligations, although it is
regrettable that outreach is not considered a factor in evaluating research
proposals. The European Commission's proposed 7th Framework Programme,
published on 6 April 2005, foresees an expanded "Science in Society" action
line with an increased provisional budget of [euro] 554 million (US$712
million) for 7 years.
Successful communication can begin to be measured through short-term
indicators, such as improvements in public opinion polls on trust in science or
increases in enrollment figures for undergraduate physics or chemistry
programs. In the longer term, we will need to measure evolution in the
direction of scientific citizenship, which presupposes rights and duties on the
part of citizens as much as on the part of political and scientific
institutions. Innovation is the collective bet on a common fragile future, and
neither science nor society knows the secret of how to cope with its inherent
uncertainties. It can only be accomplished through an alliance among the
participants and a shared sense of direction.
References and Notes
1. M. Crichton, The State of Fear (HarperCollins, New York, 2004).
2. J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking,
New York, 2004).
3. Y. Ezrahi, in States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and
Social Order, S. Jasanoff, Ed. (Routledge, London, 2004), pp. 254-273.
4. R. P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton
Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1986), pp. 10-12.
5. P. Weinberger, Falter, 16 February 2005, p. 14.
6. R. Highfield, Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works (Penguin, London,
7. "Einstein is dead," Nature 433, 179 (2005).
8. H. Nowotny, in The Public Nature of Science Under Assault: Politics,
Markets, Science, and the Law, Helga Nowotny et al. (Springer Verlag, New York,
2005), pp. 1-28.
10. A. I. Leshner, Science 307, 815 (2005).
11. A. Appadurai, in Culture and Public Action, V. Rao and M. Walton, Eds.
(Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, CA, 2004), pp. 59-84.
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