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If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening

For this reason, initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation -- before controversies explode -- show great promise. In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public's views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution. In the United States, meanwhile, the federally funded National Nanotechnology Initiative has sponsored a great deal of social science research to explore possible public concerns that may arise as this new field of technology advances.

Experts aren't wrong in thinking that Americans don't know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might, in the process, find a few pleasant surprises. For one thing, the public doesn't seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it's scientists who are wary of the media and the public.

Chris Mooney is the author of a paper on the relationship between scientists and the public to be released Tuesday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also the co-author, with Sheril Kirshenbaum, of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."

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