Monday, May 30, 2005

Madison Consensus Conference (April 2005)

I am back. I have recently been released from teaching responsibilities for the remainder of the calendar year to focus my scholarship on the “Communication of Nanotechnology.” As such, I will have a bunch of articles out there and will report their status here. In addition, I will review materials here as well.



A consensus conference based on the Danish model was held in April and involved thirteen citizens. For most of you, think of a large focus group. I have some serious misgivings about this form of deliberative polling. It is based on the assumption “lay people are able to understand complicated technical matters and sometimes can offer insights that experts do not consider” (p. 1.). First, it depends on the definition of “understand”. I have learned over the last two decades to speak competently on the toxicology of nanoparticles (an undergraduate degree in biology has helped), but I am not sure I can vet the findings of a study with any degree of reliability. Second, we must ask ourselves why it is necessary to “understand complicated technical matters” in order to enter the discussion over science and technology policy making. I have argued elsewhere that there are many levels in the process of inquiry, and it is not necessary to be competent, set aside being expert, on all levels to participate as a stakeholder. The entire system of representative democracy practiced here and elsewhere is based on distributed intelligence feeding back into a calculus of decision making which while hardly flawless may be good enough to approximate “informed” decision making. In addition, when the Madison authors note lay people “sometimes can offer insights that experts do not consider, they hit on two more reservations worth mentioning here.

First, if said insights are not considered by experts then my argument above on levels of inquiry seems validated given the power associated with expertise in policy making. I have examined the heuristics regarding the general public and science and toxicology elsewhere and will continue to do so.

Second and more importantly, can supposes capacity. Even the Madison report noted “the organizers…hope that government officials, scientists, the media, and area residents will pay careful attention to the conclusions and recommendations.” The real issue is whether these experiments do anything more than expose a very small, often self-selected and unrepresentative group of people to an issue.

At 13 people a shot and 4 days each, it would take about 5.6 million of these to cover the current U.S. population. Even if we assume only 10 percent of the entire population function as interested stakeholders in science and technology decision making that is still over a half million consensus conferences.

My concern remains government officials have never indicated any interest in the view of the public toward broad government science policy. I am not suggesting bureaucrats ignore public input on localized issues, but in terms of national ones, unless it taps into purportedly wasteful government spending as befell the Supercollider, elected officials don’t seem to care. However, experiments like these do convince the public they have a voice so symbolically it does reduce some backlash potential, so it does have some stakeholding function. As whether they are are any relationships between the results of deliberative polling and scientists and other area residents, there is little reason to assume much transference. As to the media, they barely reported the event outside of the Madison area.

As to the normative conclusions from the conference, they are highly predictable. Whether they reflect the background information selection process, the experts selected to participate, or other variables, it is often difficult to assess. As more of these events occur, we will gather more information to build theories and test the validity of the entire model.

For more information on this event, check

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