My experience suggests that programs applying our science to communicating technology risks and benefits are often rewarded. For example, my colleagues and I developed a widely distributed brochure about potential negative health effects of 60-Hz electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from both high-voltage power lines and home appliances, just as the issue had begun to boil in the 1980s.
As required by our science, we first summarized the evidence relevant to lay decisions and then interviewed people about their beliefs and concerns. Finally, we tested draft communications, checking that they were interpreted as intended. Among other things, those communications addressed a common bug in lay mental models: how quickly EMFs fall off with distance. We also candidly described the limits to current evidence regarding possible harm and promised that new research results would not be hidden. It is our impression that we contributed to a measured societal response to the risk.
The EMF case had conditions necessary for securing a fair hearing for the chemical or any other industry:
- A good safety record. For example, public support for nuclear power rose over the long period of safe performance preceding the Fukushima accident.
- Talking to people. The chemical industry’s outreach programs supporting local emergency responders have enhanced trust in many communities.
- A scientific approach to communication. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is creating disclosures designed to improve trust in banking and insurance products.
Developing scientifically sound communications is not expensive. However, it requires having the relevant expertise and evaluating the work empirically. Such communication often faces three interrelated barriers among some of those responsible for its adoption:
- Strong intuitions about what to say and how to say it, discounting the need to consult behavioral science and evaluate communications.
- Distrust of the public, perhaps fed by commentators who describe the public as incapable of understanding (that is, being chemophobic).
- Disrespect for the social sciences as sources of durable, useful knowledge.
There is a kernel of truth underlying these barriers. People do have some insight into how other people think, the public can be unreasonable, and social scientists do sometimes oversell their results. To help outsiders be savvy consumers of behavioral research, my colleagues and I have tried to make our science more accessible, for example, through a Food & Drug Administration user guide and via Sackler Colloquia in 2012 and in 2013 on the science of science communications, with accompanying special issues of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA.Professor Fischoff has raised some very interesting points. I wonder if the problem with the chemical industry's communications to the public is that this conversation is usually only happening under the shadow of various chemical industry incidents, i.e. removing the safety record required to sustain a basic level of trust.
Also, I think it's interesting that the EMF project involved trying to communicate the one essential fact (that EMG falls off dramatically with distance). I wonder if there is one essential fact (or two, or three?) that chemists need to always be communicating with non-chemists?