Science, truth and a dash of Grayson Perry

The Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry once said “identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat”.

You could say the same of truth. Lately truth has been a huge part of public debate. But I’d noticed that science was too silent in this conversation, and outlined some thoughts on that in a World View column titled Give the public the tools to trust scientists, which was published in Nature last week.

I’ve had various reactions to the ideas in the piece — some just wrote to say how they resonated with their own thinking, others shared related questions they’re dealing with in their work, others want to talk more.

It was also interesting to see, through comments on social media, that although my views didn’t single out a responsibility for the media or a need to educate the public (in fact it explicitly says better communication isn’t about that), some came away with those messages. It suggests to me that these entrenched ideas are part of what needs to be changed.

As things stand, communication of scientific consensus assumes authority by eliminating doubt; it gives messages to the public and asks that they are accepted. But good communication goes both ways — there needs to be more listening and understanding of the public. And that’s not really a new idea.

Three decades ago Paul Slovic’s research on risk perception overturned beliefs about the primacy of expert judgments on risk. It showed that people’s judgments in fact carry more complexity by factoring in valid emotions and understandings not captured by expert verdicts. An insightful paper published about 15 years ago by Jane Gregory, on public understanding of science policy in the UK, conveys a similar message.

More to the point of recent events — and to get back to Grayson Perry — a recent LSE blog by Ruth Dixon brings the role of emotional understanding to the foreground. Like Gregory’s paper it challenges the ‘deficit model’ of public understanding of science that suggests people need to be educated so they can accept scientific conclusions. Though Dixon’s focus is different, she cites Perry on emotional truth, and that’s what interests me: the idea of judgment as a complex process where emotions and beliefs do play a part, as do facts, politics and social values.

Scientists are “one among many authorities in society”, as Gregory puts it. Is it possible to accept this and move towards building a relationship with the public based on it, one that gives a respectful place to science and to other guides to truth?