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Ogmius Newsletter

Letter to the Editor

Ogmius received the following response to an article in our Spring 2006 edition, Reproductive medicine, politics and religion in Italy:  Reflections on the 2005 referendum by Gilberto Corbellini.  Its author, Daniel Alberts, describes how the experience of the Michigan Wind Working Group supports Corbellini’s suggestion that “the percentage of Italians who went to the polls for the referendum corresponds to the percentage of people who understand how the scientific method works.”

Science Policy Development: Acknowledging the Public's Reluctance to Participate

In the Spring 2006 issue of Ogmius, Gilberto Corbellini wrote about Italy's referendum on medically assisted fertilization. After detailing the political fight over the issue and voters' response, Corbellini noted that "the percentage of Italians who went to the polls for the referendum corresponds to the percentage of people who understand how the scientific method works." Although Corbellini dismissed his own observation as chance, Michigan experienced a similar response when we asked for public help developing wind energy policy. Examined together, the Italian and Michigan cases seem like more than a coincidence. They seem to indicate a widespread phenomenon with an important implication.

The Michigan Wind Working Group (MWWG) had been debating how to address turbine noise and potential wildlife impacts in the Michigan Siting Guidelines for Wind Energy Systems. The highly contentious debate raged for months, and the group showed no signs of reaching agreement. Members of the MWWG thought that including more stakeholders, educating them on the issues, then asking their opinions would lead to a resolution. So they asked Lawrence Technological University (LTU) to conduct educational seminars and Delphi Inquires into both issues.

Our Inquiry into turbine noise started with 33 participants, but only 5 had visited a wind farm, and only 1 had prior experience with noise ordinances. The seminars failed to educate the participants sufficiently for them to feel comfortable making decisions on the issue, and only 11 participants (40%) continued to the second iteration.

Our Inquiry into wildlife issues included more subject matter experts and yielded better participant retention. This Inquiry started with 15 participants, but 13 possessed a degree or professional experience in wildlife conservation. Nine participants (69% of experienced) continued through the second iteration. This result suggested a strong correlation between prior experience and participation.

I analyzed our participation and concluded that participants' prior knowledge of a subject contributed to participative capacity, i.e. willingness and ability to participate. Corbellini's observation that voter turnout in the Italian referendum correlated with scientific understanding suggests that we may also draw broader conclusions for democratic processes in general: People may only be willing to participate in public policy development when they have knowledge of the subject and confidence in their knowledge.

This conclusion has at least one important implication. As our society integrates more technological advances, more and more public policy will relate to those advances. But with our public education lagging behind these developments, fewer and fewer people are being prepared to participate in our democratic processes. What happens when only a few people are capable and willing to participate in democratic processes? Do we accept that being governed by éminences grises might be necessary? Given most people's knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that democracy isn't the greatest form of government, this seems unlikely.

But if we want people to participate in a technological and democratic society, we must prepare them for it. This means more than just increasing funding for scientific education. Our schools must start teaching all students how to continually educate themselves on developing technology and participate in developing the policies related to that technology.

Daniel J. Alberts

The surveys and final research report can be found here.

Wikipedia entry on the Delphi method