SAN DIEGO, CA – How can the United States benefit from an "informed public" when policy debates revolve around scientific questions that bewilder or confuse most Americans? Our society will be unsuccessful in doing so, according to Daniel Yankelovich, a preeminent social scientist, until and unless we first redefine what an "informed public" really is.
Yankelovich was one of a diverse array of leading scientists, engineers, educators and policy-makers who presented at the American Association's Advancement of Science's (AAAS) 176th annual meeting in San Diego on February 19, 2010.
Yankelovich, a pioneer in public opinion research, suggests that leaders in the science and technology communities, need to understand that factual data, though necessary, are by themselves radically insufficient. Drawing upon his decades of experience monitoring social change and public opinion in America, Yankelovich emphasized the striking differences between the public's learning curve as it actually operates and prevailing theories of how to inform the public. He highlighted the critical importance of a three-stage process that obliges the public to confront and overcome its own wishful thinking, a process that engages peoples' deepest emotions and values as well as factual information.
"An informed public is deeply grounded in our political tradition and essential for our democracy to work," said Yankelovich. "Yet scientists, like leaders in other fields, have enormous difficulty engaging the public on critical issues like global warming, bioethics, and other challenges that can only be solved when good science, wise public policy and thoughtful public judgment all come together. The American public can grapple with tough problems in a meaningful way, but scientists have to understand how to communicate the non-cognitive aspects of the public's learning curve."