July 17, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

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Quick quiz: Name Einstein's most famous equation.

Most of you probably had E=mc2 in your heads the instant you saw "Einstein." You didn't have to think about it — it's something you just know, and have probably known since childhood.

But can you say you understand it?

The physicists among you likely can, but for the rest of us, much of our scientific knowledge remains a catalogue of facts that we don't fully comprehend — and that sort of knowledge, two Bucknell University philosophy professors say, can be dangerous.

The question of how America might achieve greater public understanding of science is the focus of a new project by Professors Matthew Slater and Jason Leddington, philosophy. Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Varieties of Understanding project and the John Templeton Foundation, the yearlong project seeks to investigate the difference between public knowledge and public understanding, and to offer advice for scientists and science communicators engaged in science outreach.

"In most cases, communication between scientists and the public is oriented around consensus and trust," Slater said. "That is, a layperson should believe that E=mc2 because that's what the experts overwhelmingly believe. So much of our knowledge about science comes from testimony, from the say-so of others in a position to know. With this model of knowledge production, it seems all one needs to do is undermine the credibility of  scientists — undermine their trustworthiness, undermine their acumen — and that's enough to basically break the knowledge-forming process."

In democratic societies, where public consensus shapes policy, breaking down that process can have dire consequences, some of which we're already seeing, Slater said.

Professor Matthew Slater, philosophy

Take, for instance, America's climate change debate. The idea that human activity is fueling climate change has near universal acceptance among scientists, but a recent Gallup poll finds that only one in three Americans is seriously worried about global warming's consequences, while one in four remains skeptical it's happening at all.

In similar fashion, the medical community has continually affirmed the safety of vaccines, and recognizes that the social good they provide in controlling infectious disease vastly outweighs any risk they present. Yet in the last decade, North America and Western Europe have seen outbreaks of diseases once eradicated in the West, including measles and whooping cough, a resurgence attributed to parents opting to not vaccinate their children based on fears stemming from discredited science.

Professor Jason Leddington, philosophy

"If our strategies changed from producing public knowledge to producing a public with a certain amount of understanding of the subject matter, that's less likely to be disrupted by people seeding doubt by saying, 'These scientists are unreliable or untrustworthy,'" Slater said.

The Bucknell philosophers can't say yet what real public understanding of science might look like — figuring that out is a key component of their grant — but Leddington suggests a useful metaphor might be found in America's driveways and parking lots.

"People generally have an understanding of how cars work, and they know more than just an assortment of facts," Leddington said. "They have a sense of how things are interconnected. It's not as if they run out of gas and say, 'I don't know why my car won't run.' There's a way in which we generally understand how cars work even if we don't know the details."

To aid them in their efforts, the philosophers are seeking collaborators from Bucknell's science faculty. They plan to host symposia twice a month in the spring semester where students and faculty can explore topics related to understanding, as well as a series of speakers addressing public understanding of science.

"It is emphatically not going to be the two of us and a bunch of philosophy students sitting around chatting," Leddington said. "We're not going to make any real progress on this without collaboration with scientists, as well as with people from education, psychology and other humanities who are interested in these questions. It's a hugely interdisciplinary project."

In addition to the general theoretical project, Slater and Leddington will examine case studies of scientific communication in three areas: climate change, vaccines and neuroscience. The researchers said they chose to include neuroscience because of its visibility in popular culture and its growing relevance to the fields of law and ethics.

"Perhaps more than any other science, the results of neuroscientific inquiry are sensationalized in the public sphere," Leddington said. "You can find headlines like: 'Scientists discover the part of your brain responsible for moral behavior' when no thoughtful neuroscientist really believes that we have achieved this, or that such a claim even makes sense. The public has very little understanding of what neuroscience is about and what results we can actually get out of it, and this has troubling consequences."

In one year, Slater and Leddington will present their findings at the Varieties of Understanding Midpoint Conference at Fordham University's Lincoln Center Campus in New York City. They plan to develop recommendations for science communicators based on their work, and will incorporate their research into classes this fall. In the meantime, you can follow their work on their project blog.

They are also considering seeking additional grants to keep the project going. "What we're hoping is that this will really lay the groundwork for several years of research," Leddington said.