At Techonomy Bio 2015, attendees watch panelists (from left) Theral Timpson, Erika Check Hayden, Kristen Bole, Ryan Bethencourt, and Ellen Jorgensen speak at a session entitled "Science, Fear, and the Communication Game." (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)
At Techonomy Bio 2015, attendees watch panelists (from left) Theral Timpson, Erika Check Hayden, Kristen Bole, Ryan Bethencourt, and Ellen Jorgensen speak at a session entitled “Science, Fear, and the Communication Game.” (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

Innovation in science and technology is moving at a pace unprecedented in history. Every month seems to introduce vast new frontiers. Five years ago, how many of us had conceived of living buildings made of mushroom, bones that grow themselves, self-driving cars, or “mental prosthetics”?
These advancements bring tremendous promise for nearly every facet of life, but many also bring daunting potential threats. Questions about unethical use, accidents, privacy/security breaches, and safety all rightly raise concern. In recent months, we’ve heard some of our most respected leaders voice their anxieties, from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking on artificial intelligence to a group of leading scientists calling for a moratorium on a new genome editing technique.
The global public feels the same way. Respondents in Edelman’s 2015 Annual Trust Barometer consider the pace of development in business and industry to be “too fast” by a 2:1 margin, and make strong calls for more regulation across almost every industry.
Clear, direct, open-minded public debate around technological and scientific topics is sorely lacking. Large gaps in knowledge, fueled by unchecked emotion, are keeping us from having rational conversations about genuine merits and risks. We see this everywhere from the anti-vaccine movement that fed the recent measles outbreak in California to the agricultural genetics melee—in which 82 percent of the public supports mandatory labels on GMOs in their food but 80 percent also support mandatory labels of food containing DNA. We’re having to make relatively sophisticated judgments on policy without understanding the fundamentals of science.
One of the panels at last week’s Techonomy Bio conference in Mountain View, Calif., explored the topic of how to better communicate about science and technology for more useful public discourse. Techonomy convened a group of science and tech writers, influencers and communicators to talk about the challenges in helping to educate and support a general public facing nuanced, complex topics. The key points that emerged reflected many of Edelman’s findings about trust, along with a blend of common sense, inspired thought and experience:

  • The source of information matters. The public is more likely to trust a respected academic or expert than a corporate spokesperson.
  • People respond well to openness and dislike surprises. Better to spell out risks (and ways to mitigate them) with a new development than to focus only on the positive and “hope for the best.”
  • From preschool through adulthood, improving scientific literacy is essential. We need to understand the basics about the world, our bodies, and how things work. Equally important, we need to know how to ask questions, interpret findings and seek context.
  • Word choice elicits powerful emotion. No surprise that it’s best to avoid referring to terms (e.g. “Frankenfoods”) that create fear and drama without adding substance.
  • We need more experts, academics, and leaders who care deeply about, and are skilled at, translating complex technical issues into meaningful and approachable public discussions.

If we can grow buildings, bones, and biofuels, I believe we can get to a more educated, civil public discourse around issues of tech and science. The key is for society to become much more comfortable with asking questions and building context without rushing to a polarized and potentially misinformed position. Techonomy panelist and UCSF biotech writer Kristen Bole posed our collective challenge succinctly: “How do we get the public to ask questions more effectively?”
It’s all about opening minds.
Maria Amundson is global sector chair of Technology at Edelman, which was a Techonomy Bio partner.