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A recap of last week’s panel

June 10, 2011

Last week the PRI Marcellus Shale team brought together science educators and communications experts to discuss how we should talk about contentious issues like the Marcellus Shale. Our colleague Alex Wall was kind enough to write a blog post sharing his experience of the panel.

“I had not heard of the process of hydraulic fracturing before moving to New York State a little more than a year ago. I have had some education in geology generally, but little specifically about petroleum and quickly discovered myself on a learning curve to catch up. Thankfully, my colleagues are absolute experts on the topic and are very conscious of the hazards of bias. It is a rare thing to gain carefully balanced information on a polarizing topic and rarer to see the balancing process. I’m not writing this as a cheerleader, but the PRI Marcellus team gets flak from both sides and deserves kudos for absorbing and learning from it.

Dr. McLeod gave some very concise and potent examples of bias introduced by both the presentation and the interpretation of information. Of course we are suspicious of information presented by the “other side” and find examples and assign motives which can quickly take over earnest debate, but it is more difficult and more important to be aware of the biases we impose on information we gain. What I took away was that when we become aware of our biases, we become more difficult to manipulate and can make better decisions.

While Dr. McLeod talked about the tone and kind of language we use, Dr. Lewenstein focused on the settings and mode of communication. Some of the insights he shared about the roles educators can serve I found particularly interesting: that outreach could be viewed as a continuum between information delivery and engagement, and that museums are commonly viewed as a non-threatening venue for informal education. I also enjoyed his points about explicitly examining the ethics of contentious issues, rather than both sides groping for scientific support for their opinions.

Dr. Duggan-Haas rounded out the evening with views on constructing a message. Essential to this is recognizing the greater context into which the science fits. He went on to build the economic, social, and logistical contexts that surround hydraulic fracturing and talked about how those might inform both what information the public should have to make a sound decision and how to structure that information. That is, it will help shape your opinion to know about why we use natural gas, energy alternatives, related politics, etc.

In any discourse that involves science, it is important to discriminate between facts and values, and give both due consideration. The PRI’s role in the current debate is providing facts and a forum to discuss values. After the last panel (The Science Beneath the Surface: Earth Systems Science of Drilling the Marcellus Shale), I wrote a blog saying it was hopeful that not everyone talking about Marcellus drilling was caught up in rhetoric; I think it was a great move to host another on how to overcome the obstacles to earnest discussion.”

To view recordings of this and other presentations, see our webinar page.
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