Design thinking: hackneyed buzzword or the future of science communication?

by Jen

Dan Kahan, of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, recently published a series of blog posts describing his vision of a new political regime he calls the Liberal Republic of Science. In part 1, he explains the concept of a political regime:

(U)nlike classification schemes used in contemporary political science, the classical notion of  “political regimes” doesn’t simply map such forms of government onto signature institutions (“democracy = majority rule”; “communism = state ownership of property,” etc.). Instead, it explicates such forms with respect to foundational ideas and commitments, which are understood to animate social and political life—determining, certainly, how sovereign power is allocated across institutions, but also deeply pervading all manner of political and even social and private life.

In part 2, he introduces the concept of a Liberal Republic of Science:

The Liberal Republic of Science is a political regime. Its animating principle is the mutually supportive relationship—indeed, the passionately reciprocal envelopment—of political liberalism and scientific inquiry.

In part 3, Kahan explores the irony that:

the cultural polarization we today observe over risks and how to abate them… is in fact a byproduct of the very same characteristics that make a liberal society conducive to the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

and argues that citizens in this very regime often, predictably,

form the mistaken perception that those who disagree with them on these issues are anti-science. But this last mistake is arguably the one that harms them the most.

And in part 4, he concludes with an entreaty:

Responding to the advent of democratic society, Tocqueville famously called for the creation of a “new political science for a world itself quite new.”

Perfecting the Liberal Republic of Science presents still newer challenges of government.  Overcoming them will require a new political science too: a science of science communication aimed at equipping democratic societies with the knowledge, with the institutions, and with the mores necessary to sustain a deliberative environment in which culturally diverse citizens reliably converge on the best available understandings of how to achieve their common ends.

I couldn’t agree more.

Tocqueville wrote that such a new “political science” should

instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true instincts for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.

If we are to apply the same treatment to science communication,

Who is up to the task?

And how do we begin?

One might be inclined to assign the development of a new science of science communication solely to the scientists, and with good reason: scientists are uniquely trained in the process of scientific inquiry and the construction of empirical knowledge. I would argue, however, that such a recruitment strategy will prove too narrow and ultimately impede the progress of Liberal Republic of Science whose animating principle is the mutual support between science and liberal democracy.

To wit: How did Tocqueville achieve his understanding of American democracy? Certainly, he did more than just think about it; he studied it. But, he didn’t craft a double blind study or recruit participants to assess American democracy; he went to America and traveled around the country, interacting with people on their own terms. He observed, talked, and lived with them. He immersed himself in their environment to understand the context of their new democracy, and then stepped back to synthesize his observations into a series of implications for the future of this new political regime. Dare I say it? His methods more closely resemble the types of ethnographic observation and contextual inquiry used today by design researchers, than the scientific method employed by social and decision scientists.

Of course, this is not to assign a superiority to design thinking or malign the scientific method. As I am always quick to point out, I have a physics degree. I love the scientific method. But, I’m now also a designer, and I believe design thinking, when applied appropriately, is equally powerful. The scientific method and design thinking need each other. But they are different.

Design thinking is uniquely oriented toward future states in comparison to current states. This is what sets it apart from the scientific method, which seeks instead to define parameters of a current problem and study its nature in depth. Design thinking is a solution-focused process that begins with a goal or desired state (or, perhaps, ideal political regime?) rather than focusing on a specific, current problem. By simultaneously exploring the challenges and problems of the current state and iterating potential resolutions that bring about the desired future state, design thinking essentially begins with the solution and concerns itself with finding (or constructing) the path to get from here to there. What better way of thinking could there be to bring about a new way of approaching science communication, or Kahan’s idea of the Liberal Republic of Science?

Richard Buchanan, writing about wicked problems in design thinking, describes the growth of design thinking in society:

We have seen design grow from a trade activity to a segmented profession to a field for technical research and to what now should be recognized as a new liberal art of technological culture.

Individuals trained in the traditional arts and sciences may continue to be puzzled by the neoteric art of design. But the masters of this new liberal art are practical men and women, and the discipline of thinking that they employ is gradually becoming accessible to all individuals in everyday life. A common discipline of design thinking- more than the particular products created by that discipline today-is changing our culture, not only in its external manifestations but in its internal character.

Perhaps the answer to my earlier questions (who? how?) comes in a single idea: design thinking.

If you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ve already predicted that answer, I imagine. I’m not suggesting that designers will swoop in to solve the challenge of science communication; scientists and those who communicate on their behalf will still hold the reigns. However,  I believe a healthy infusion of design thinking into the fields of risk perception and science communication will be the motivating factor behind our ultimate development of a new science of science communication.

What will that look like? Who knows. But I’m doing my part to help figure it out.

I am approaching this endeavor as a design challenge, but with the goal of better understanding the science of science communication. I am currently designing an informational piece about childhood vaccines to test as a prototype. I began the process (a human centered design process) by not writing off the entire portion of the population that mistrusts vaccines as crazy idiots. There are some crazy idiot anti-vaccine activists out there, but there are many, many more reasonable, intelligent, and well-adjusted people who have some misgivings about vaccines. They are what Bitzer would call a rhetorical audience. So, I endeavored to understand their cultural worldviews and learned about the work of social and decision scientists on risk perception and social psychology. I am very deliberately applying strategies informed by that research to the vaccines piece, and it will be accompanied by a survey that will allow me to assess worldview, scientific literacy, and attitudes, both before and after viewing the piece. After I’ve shared it, I’ll synthesize the results to draw insights and identify implications for science communication strategies. Then, I’ll do it again, and perhaps again, as time allows. In the end, I’ll share the implications of my research with the wider field of science communication (if they’ll hear it).

Maybe I’ll dedicate my final document to the memory of Tocqueville.

Anyway, I expect to finish the first vaccine piece this week and recruit survey participants soon after… and will certainly share the results here. Thanks for sticking around and continuing to read about my process. I appreciate the occasional emails and comments!