Coffee Shop as a Microcosm for Public Understandings of Science

Today at a coffee shop I spied a bit on the greeting and conversation of two men who appeared to be close friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. As one of them went up to get his coffee, he asked the other if he would like one. The man said yes – even though he had already had a lot today. It wasn’t a problem, he said, as he had just heard of a new study which found that men who drink a lot of coffee have lower rates of prostate cancer.

The study he is referring to was recently widely reported in media (CBC, Science Daily, MSNBC, CBS News, etc.). It purports that men who drink 6 or more cups of coffee a day are less likely to get an aggressive form of prostate cancer (original research here).

The men had a little chuckle (and a little more coffee) and went about their reunion, while I started thinking about the encounter as reflective of the relationships between science and publics. In the CBC news article, one of the researchers is quoted:

It is premature to recommend that men increase coffee intake to reduce advanced prostate cancer risk based on this single study. In addition, the effects of coffee consumption on other aspects of health must be considered in making consumption recommendations.

So, as readers we can’t take away much more from the study than “that’s interesting. They should keep working on that.” As a supporter of and advocate for science, this notion resonates with me. But I wonder if that is enough for others.

While cautious statements like these mean much in the context of science which places so much emphasis on qualification and admitting limitations, they provide very little guidance on how publics should act on the knowledge produced. I can’t know whether the study actually informed the decision-making of the man at the coffee shop; however, I think the conversation illustrates a typical disjoint in the translation of the ‘official recommendation’ that comes from science to the everyday lives of people who are plunking along making decisions towards their short and long term health, happiness, and satisfaction. They make these decisions in a context where there is too little known and where too much of what is known is contradictory. And they make these decisions using knowledge that comes from diverse realms of life – not just science.

Since the study cannot offer any actionable advice, how are publics to “digest” the knowledge shared? Certainly if it is the case that the man decided to drink more coffee because of the study, this means that the disclaimer provided by the researchers may not be what “sticks” in the minds of readers about the research. The coffee shop encounter, then, raises ethical questions for researchers who are sharing their work. What if it is later found that the harms of drinking coffee outweigh the benefits? Or that there is some other explanation for the results of the study that are unrelated to compounds in coffee? I could go on – but the point is that uncertainty colours the knowledge produced by this study in many different ways. If it is the case that the man drank more coffee because of the study, their disclaimer does not absolve them of facing the ethical challenge posed by uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Still, if only “absolutely certain” results were shared with the public, well, we’d never hear from science again.

So my questions are: At what point in the production of scientific knowledge is it most advantageous to inform publics of what scientists are doing and finding? How should the knowledge be presented?

Placenta as Protagonist

A casual fireside conversation about the placenta with a new friend last summer inspired a wonderful short story about studying placenta. It’s by Chris Benjamin, author of the new novel Drive-by Saviours. The story is a wonderful mashup of worlds… just like the placenta is a mashup of biological and social worlds occupied by mother, father, and fetus. I’m utterly impressed at Chris’ insight into this enigmatic organ which is typically so little understood and appreciated, and a little tickled that my commentary on the placenta reached into the world of literature. An excerpt from the story:

“Well,” she said, “Thank God I don’t work with the Kaili of Central Sulawesi. I’d never get the chance to study a placenta if everybody buried them.”

I smiled and nodded, wondered if she was perhaps a bit crazy. I hoped so. Crazy women liked me.

“I’m a placental scientist,” she said.

I nodded, as if that was only natural, but the revelation shocked me. “Small world,” I said. “I study ethnographic interpretations of the placenta.”

“Excuse me?”

“Um, I study various indigenous cultures and their treatments of the placenta. What it means to them and what they do with it.”

“Fascinating,” she said.

I smiled.

Chris is always looking for avenues to publish material like this. Contact him here.

Congress 2010: Evelyn Fox Keller, Climate Change Science, and Scientific Literacy

The Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science hosted a lecture by prolific science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller during this year’s Congress. In her talk “Climate Science, Truth, and Democracy,” Keller discussed how, why, and towards what outcomes scientific experts have thus far engaged in public and political debates on climate change. She argued that nothing in scientific training prepares scientists to communicate their findings with publics; furthermore, many scientists are unwilling to do so because they fear being perceived as being “unscientific” or “political.” Scientists are committed to the belief that science is capable of delivering value-free access to truth. Instead of strengthening the case for their claims about climate change, this has weakened them precisely because it is used as a reason to shy away from public discourses and debates, which are then not as informed by scientific knowledge as they could be.  This disengagement of scientists from public debates has enabled the climate change “deniers” to have an incredible and unbalanced amount of airtime and attention.

Scientists then, must engage with publics, and this will mean that they recognize that science is not apolitical. But confidence in science is still possible. Scientific claims are made very carefully; with proper understanding of the basis of scientific claims, we can see them as “true enough” for us to make decisions about whether and how to act on them. Keller suggested that scientific claims give us our best shot at understanding the past, present, and future – especially of climate change.

Keller’s recommendation is that their needs to be training on how to clearly and effectively articulate the findings of science built  into the education and professionalization of scientists. This is a reformulation of conventional understandings of “scientific literacy,” which normally refers to the need for publics to be better educated on how science works and why its claims are compelling. Instead, Keller advanced a kind of “public literacy” for scientists.

While I appreciated Keller’s argument for the public literacy of scientists, I felt it rested very heavily on her belief in the evidence supporting the existence of anthropogenic climate change. While I certainly support this, I wonder how her analysis would play out differently for phenomena for which there isn’t such unified scientific consensus, or for which there are competing knowledge claims coming from outside of science (like knowledge with a religious or experiential base). I’m left wondering whether Keller’s reformulation of scientific literacy is really the same thing as the dissemination model of public understandings of science, in which there is a one-way flow of information between scientists and publics – particularly if the training she argues for better equips them to “tell their story,” but not to hear the stories of others.

Do scientists make the most compelling knowledge claims? What should be the weight and credence of their expertise? For me, Keller’s talk has provided a provocative basis upon which to start to think through these questions.

Post edit: My colleague Mark Vardy is doing some great work on climate change and democracy that you should check out.