One of the tabs on this site is ‘Science and Health’ and that area is something I talk about less than I should. Besides the work on online research and websites which has taken up a lot of my time recently, I’m involved with what’s usually termed ‘public engagement’.
I’ve been going through a phase of explaining myself to people, and I notice that the researchers and the web people trip up over ‘public engagement.’ Well, in part it is nice to work across a range of different areas rather than specialising to death, but in addition I would argue that it’s all part of the same thing. Public engagement is about scientific establishments, or other institutions, understanding their audiences better in order to have more useful conversations. That’s pretty close to communication research, really.
Engagement is often seen as a euphemism for persuasion, as in ‘engaging with our customers’ and ‘engaging our critics’. These days, those doing the engaging, whether they are government, medics, scientists or large corporations, like to maintain that it is all about meeting in the middle. I’m not so sure that it is, or even can be. A lot of the time it’s much like clambering down from the top of a mountain, emerging from the mists to talk to a group of filthy villagers sitting round a camp fire with their yaks, having a bit of a chat, and then hiking back up the mountain to rejoin the mystics in orange robes sitting around their very clean campfire.
Actually, market research is like that a lot.
‘The villagers don’t like the plans for the new yak paths!’
‘Hrrumph. Perhaps you talked to the wrong villagers. Let us find a different band of filthy villagers, and see what they say.’
I think we would all like to write out the elite part of this particular attempt at engagement. Engagement in science, for example, is not longer described as ‘public understanding of science’ in order to convey the more democratic, persuasion-free model of engagement, yet there are real limits to relativism. In reality, one group has power or knowledge or structures that the other party doesn’t. So to my mind, there is a constant tension between the ideals of engagement and the lived reality of, say, government and accepted scientific knowledge.
In the case of medicine, you might understand your patients’ trust in complementary therapy, but want to persuade more of them to have their children vaccinated. In the case of law, you might understand the victims’ strong need for justice and retribution, but you might not want to support their demands for long prison sentences.
Don’t get me wrong: I love engagement, and I adore it when the filthy villagers throw the monks’ tools back in their faces, because we all need powerful people to understand our reality far better than they do, but there is a genuine power disparity here that needs acknowledging.
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