Research Team Formed

We were extremely lucky to have assembled a team of seven undergraduate researchers for our project, including three first-year Presidential Fellows, three talented sophomores, and one experienced senior. They are helping us with organization aspects of the project as well as pursuing basic research concerning focused aspects of our three major case studies. Look forward to much more from them in the coming months (including a fully in-focus photo! — I should have looked more closely at the product of the timer!).

PoPUS Research Team for 2014–15

PoPUS Research Team for 2014–15: from left to right: Victor LoPiccolo, Julia Bresticker, Nicolas Diaz, Jason Leddington, Matthew Slater, Rachel Greenberg, Jeff Bergman, Caroline McGlynn, Erin Schwab

Understanding the Fine Print

An interesting NPR story came on the other day about two researchers at Dartmouth trying to get more easily-digestible drug facts on pharmaceutical company’s packaging. Aside from their main message about the public’s ability to understand quantitative, statistical information about drug effectiveness, one thing that stood out for me was how they communicated a simple lesson about the relevance of such phrases as ‘reduces your chance of X by Y%’ via a simple analogy.

One thing that I’m interested in — a side interest for the time being — is whether this sort of analogical explanation/illustration strategy retains its effectiveness as you ramp up to more complex phenomena. The analogies will presumably become more strained and themselves more complex. How, for example, would you explain (in the same sort of way) the Base-Rate Fallacy?

Social Epistemology on Tap

goldman-and-whitcombSince we’re now at the beginning of Stage 1, we’re starting both the planning process for events connected with the project and digging into some foundation/refresher readings in social epistemology. In recent decades, philosophers have become increasingly interested in  socially-oriented epistemology. But the focus here has been on the production, distribution, and transmission of knowledge. At the same time, the difference between knowledge and understanding has been very much on the agenda of analytic epistemology. And in this case, it is quite individualistically-oriented. We want to socialize understanding (or “understand-ize” social epistemology?).

But first, we need to get our bearings a bit more in social epistemology. Alvin Goldman and Dennis Whitcomb, eds., Social Epistemology: Essential Readings seems like a good starting point. Thus, over the next two weeks, we’ll be reading and discussing papers in this collection.

And we’re off!

My colleague Jason Leddington and I are thrilled to have received a one-year, $100,000 grant from the Varieties of Understanding Project — a Templeton Foundation funded project led by Stephen Grimm at Fordham University — to enable us to study the nature and production of public understanding of science. Here’s the short description of our project:

In a democratic, industrialized society, a scientifically literate public is critical to the possibility of good policy-making. However, recent science communication has failed to generate a level of public consensus sufficient to inform rational action on important public initiatives. We propose that reorienting our epistemic goals in education, advocacy, and communication from Public Knowledge to Public Understanding might dramatically improve this situation. As it stands, however, “public understanding” is poorly understood. Social-scientific models for its promotion typically leave ‘understanding’ unexplained and fail to adequately distinguish it from knowledge. Moreover, relevant philosophical literature generally focuses on individual, rather than public understanding. Our project thus combines philosophical study of the nature of public understanding with case studies of critical science outreach efforts to: (a) develop a viable philosophical theory of public understanding alongside (b) strategic recommendations for social scientists, journalists, and policy-makers to devise better means for producing public understanding of science.

The Varieties of Understanding Project itself has a lot of great people approaching understanding from some really interesting (different) angles. Here’s the list.

From now through the end of the year (Stage 1), we’ll be working primarily on the theoretical side of things to develop  a philosophical theory of public understanding. Stage 2 (roughly January–June 2015) will apply the lessons of Stage 1 in the context of three case studies of science outreach efforts: climate change, childhood vaccine safety, and neuroscience. As part of our grant, we’ll be hosting several events and meetings at Bucknell. Please check back here for more updates and announcements going forward. And feel free to contact us if you’d like to get involved somehow.

More to come. . . .