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Opinion: Misguided Science Policy?

The pitfalls of using public meetings as surrogate gauges of public opinion

By | April 10, 2012

Attendees of a full town hall meeting on the subject of health care reform in West Hartford, Connecticut, in September 2009 WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, SAGE ROSS

Public meetings and consensus conferences seem to be the tool du jour for many government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Agriculture. Designed to give the public a voice in policy decisions, they can, in some cases, provide valuable insights into the local public’s views and opinions on certain issues. But they can also have disastrous consequences when used as a policy-making tool designed to tap public opinion more broadly.  And the likelihood of failure is particularly high when debates emerge in a community about if and where to build controversial facilities for storing nuclear waste or conducting research on potentially deadly biological pathogens.

The politics of site selection for controversial research often pits the collective need for state-of-the-art facilities against potential opposition from individual communities who would prefer that these facilities (and for that matter, cell phone towers, power plants, and waste disposal sites) be built in someone else’s backyard. Policymakers therefore rely on public, town-hall-type meetings to gather and prioritize a variety of perspectives. Such meetings often amplify conflicting viewpoints of residents and rarely result in consensus, but they are still surprisingly popular among policy makers.

In fact, our recent study of the political dynamics surrounding the recent site selection process for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) suggested that using public meetings may actually promote policy choices that are diametrically opposed to public preferences.

One of our most important findings concerned the final ranking of the six proposed NBAF sites, particularly with respect to the ill-defined criterion of “community acceptance.”  In particular, we compared the DHS rankings to population surveys in the six finalist communities and in-depth interviews with journalists, policy makers, and community leaders. These data showed that assessments of “community acceptance” by the DHS underestimated actual public approval, likely dominated by vocal opposition groups.

The DHS’s rankings were also influenced by differences in individual opinions and perceptions of what everyone else thought.  In communities ranked as “not fulfilling” or only “partially fulfilling” the DHS’s community acceptance requirements, the share of supportive residents was substantial, but citizens mistakenly saw the climate of opinion as overwhelmingly negative, influenced in part by contentious public meetings and the resulting news coverage. In Georgia, for instance, we witnessed a complete reversal between the distributions of respondents’ own views (mostly supportive) and their perceptions of others’ views (mostly in opposition). Similarly, though residents of North Carolina and near Plum Island in New York expressed more equivocal support, the majority was nevertheless perceived as extremely hostile toward the facility.  Only residents near the Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas sites, which the DHS ranked as being in “complete fulfillment” of the community acceptance criterion, both expressed support for the facility and perceived support among their fellow citizens.

Public opinion theory suggests that both the DHS rankings of community acceptance and survey respondents’ views of the climate of opinion were based on skewed perceptions shaped by highly vocal anti-NBAF groups and individuals. Opposition views, initially expressed in public meetings as well as yard signs and everyday conversations, were then amplified by news media and spread within communities and to the DHS. This resulted in a dual climate of opinion, which occurs when the majority of the public is on one side of an issue but also believes that most of the people around them oppose that view. Dual climates of opinion can have detrimental effects on public discourses surrounding science and technology by silencing large segments of the public who falsely see themselves in the minority. They are even more of a problem when they serve as a heuristic for policymakers who are looking to these meetings for public input, because that input ultimately reflects the views of a highly self-selecting group of people that in many cases misrepresents the views of the community.

In these cases, public meetings were not the answer. But, if not through public meetings, how can policymakers achieve a consent-based approach while conforming to democratic ideals, particularly for controversial scientific issues? Our recommendation would be to focus more time and resources on pro-active, systematic assessments of public opinion that gives an equal voice to all members of the community. Decisions like this with tremendous societal and political impacts should not be left only to those with strong views who are willing to make the most noise at a public meeting.

Andrew R. Binder is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Director of the Project on Public Communication of Science & Technology at North Carolina State University. Dietram A. Scheufele and Dominique Brossard are professors in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Read more about the NBAF project and other related research in Risk Analysis, Communication Research, and this Harvard University research paper series.

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Anonymous

April 10, 2012

This is in response to the article at:  http://the-scientist.com/2012/...

So long as elected political officials are more motivated by their desire to win elections, and use methods most effect at creating the appearance of catering to the well-being of constituents, the word "statesman" and the term "wise leader" are
mere echos of a former era.

If every U. S. citizen, instead of attending "town meetings" (which share some characteristics of lynch mobs, except that it is the reasonable and workable solutions to real needs of the people that, figuratively speaking, get lynched today).

I have sent a copy of this article to a U. S. Senator who gave lip service, at least, to wanting to hear from me, after I offered to send him documentation and reason, as opposed to sensationalism and hype and misinformed campaign rhetoric.

He responded by inviting me to a forthcoming "town meeting" in my locality.

Is it any wonder I get the feeling I might as well speak facts and soundly-based argumentations to a head of cabbage?

We the people of the United States have the greatest politiicans money can buy, who are greatest problem solvers since Cheetah.

Avatar of: EllenHunt

EllenHunt

Posts: 74

April 10, 2012

Yes. I have seen this. It applies to more than just the public comment meeting process.  Small, zealous pressure groups have learned that they can control elections at the primary stage because most voters ignore primaries.  This makes politicians beholden to extremely narrow special interests that are opposed to the majority.

We see a version of this in the current republican primary election.  Only vast sums of money have prevented a narrow extremist base from determining the republican candidate. 

I have seen this also working in campaigns at the State and Congressional level where it is mostly invisible to citizens.  Two powerful pressure groups are police and firefighters.  They will get out the vote, contribute to elections and make or break a candidate.  There are also the single-issue groups like gay marriage and anti-gay marriage.  Those get out the vote.   

And I have seen what the author describes in City Council meetings over and over.  "The Party of No" is extremely vocal and dominates the news. They reflexively oppose almost everything, making outrageous, wild claims against proposals.  Two recent incidents here are apropos.

The city council had a hearing on a proposal to put up a radio tower. There are a number around here, and it would bring in significant revenue. A local busybody rallied her minions and successfully killed it by claiming:
- That birds would run into it in the dark and die.
- That the required aircraft warning lights would illuminate the neighborhood with searchlight beams that rivaled the rising sun.

The same "Party of No" did its best to kill a cell phone company from putting up its towers.  That did not succeed, but only because the city attorney told the council, in no uncertain terms, that the city would lose in court, and be liable for court costs which would amount to millions of dollars the city did not have.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 10, 2012

This is in response to the article at:  http://the-scientist.com/2012/...

So long as elected political officials are more motivated by their desire to win elections, and use methods most effect at creating the appearance of catering to the well-being of constituents, the word "statesman" and the term "wise leader" are
mere echos of a former era.

If every U. S. citizen, instead of attending "town meetings" (which share some characteristics of lynch mobs, except that it is the reasonable and workable solutions to real needs of the people that, figuratively speaking, get lynched today).

I have sent a copy of this article to a U. S. Senator who gave lip service, at least, to wanting to hear from me, after I offered to send him documentation and reason, as opposed to sensationalism and hype and misinformed campaign rhetoric.

He responded by inviting me to a forthcoming "town meeting" in my locality.

Is it any wonder I get the feeling I might as well speak facts and soundly-based argumentations to a head of cabbage?

We the people of the United States have the greatest politiicans money can buy, who are greatest problem solvers since Cheetah.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 10, 2012

Yes. I have seen this. It applies to more than just the public comment meeting process.  Small, zealous pressure groups have learned that they can control elections at the primary stage because most voters ignore primaries.  This makes politicians beholden to extremely narrow special interests that are opposed to the majority.

We see a version of this in the current republican primary election.  Only vast sums of money have prevented a narrow extremist base from determining the republican candidate. 

I have seen this also working in campaigns at the State and Congressional level where it is mostly invisible to citizens.  Two powerful pressure groups are police and firefighters.  They will get out the vote, contribute to elections and make or break a candidate.  There are also the single-issue groups like gay marriage and anti-gay marriage.  Those get out the vote.   

And I have seen what the author describes in City Council meetings over and over.  "The Party of No" is extremely vocal and dominates the news. They reflexively oppose almost everything, making outrageous, wild claims against proposals.  Two recent incidents here are apropos.

The city council had a hearing on a proposal to put up a radio tower. There are a number around here, and it would bring in significant revenue. A local busybody rallied her minions and successfully killed it by claiming:
- That birds would run into it in the dark and die.
- That the required aircraft warning lights would illuminate the neighborhood with searchlight beams that rivaled the rising sun.

The same "Party of No" did its best to kill a cell phone company from putting up its towers.  That did not succeed, but only because the city attorney told the council, in no uncertain terms, that the city would lose in court, and be liable for court costs which would amount to millions of dollars the city did not have.

March 31, 2013

This article appears to be based on the report:

Interpersonal amplification of risk? Citizen discussions and their impact on perceptions of risks and benefits of a biological research facility. Binder AR, Scheufele DA, Brossard D, Gunther AC. Risk Anal. 2011.

But that report does not address the effects of town hall type meetings. Further, the claim that decision-making bodies are regularly swayed the apparent majority view at town hall type meetings is not well supported by evidence and in many cases appears to the be the opposite.

In the case of the town hall type meetings associated with the University of Wisconsin's attempt to snag the NBAF, public opinion voiced at the well attended town hall type meetings was overwhelmingly opposed. But the university ignored those albeit snapshot majority opinions and pressed forward at every turn ignoring the voiced concerns.

The dismissal of what appears to be overwhelming public opinion seems to be routine by decision-making bodies, in spite of the claims being made in this article.

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