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Understanding citizen perceptions of science controversy: bridging the ethnographic—survey research divide

In Journalism, Politics, Science, Uncategorized on February 15, 2008 at 2:57 am

Matthew C. Nisbet School of Communication, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016, USA, nisbetmc@gmail.com

Robert K. Goidel Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University
Using the contemporary debate in the United States over embryonic stem cell research as a test case, we outline a theoretical framework that points to the central impact of value predispositions, schema, political knowledge, and forms of mass media use in shaping public perceptions of science. In the process, by proposing an alternative approach to the dominant science literacy model, we address the existing divide between survey-based and ethnographic studies. Analyzing nationally representative survey data collected in the US in the fall of 2003, our findings suggest that value predispositions related to Christian conservatism and social ideology, along with schema related to abortion and reservations about science, serve as primary influences on citizen evaluations of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, while our measure of issue-specific political knowledge had no statistically significant impact. In addition, after all controls, attention to newspaper coverage along with various forms of genre-specific entertainment television use have unique influences on citizen evaluations, suggesting that the mass media provide an important part of the social context by which citizens judge controversial science. Other survey results since our data collection in 2003 lend support to our findings. Religious and ideological values appear to filter the influence of information disseminated by scientific institutions. We conclude by discussing future research that connects findings from ethnographic studies with survey-based approaches.

Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 16, No. 4, 421-440 (2007)

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