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Discussion: Data, Discourse, Dispute - Scientific Experts and the Public in the U.S. and Germany

6/28/2011 | German House New York

How Does the Public Understand and Interpret Scientific Information?

Modern societies depend on scientific evidence to make sense of technological, political and civic issues encountered on an everyday basis.

In the well-attended panel discussion, which set the stage for the DFG-NSF conference, Prof. Rainer Bromme, Department of Psychology, University of Münster, Germany; Alejandro Grajal, Ph.D., Department of Education, Chicago Zoological Society; Prof. Michaela Maier, Department of Communication Science, University of Landau, Germany; and Dr. Gavin Schmidt, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University, discussed the relationship and nature of communication between scientific experts and the public in the U.S. and Germany. Dr. Max Vögler, Director, DFG Office North America, moderated.

Both the opening panel discussion and three-day conference highlighted the conditions of contemporary interactions between the public and science. According to Prof. Rainer Bromme, with the advent of new media, the lines between the expert scientists and layperson have blurred. This has led to the formation of a plethora of contradictory information. Along with new media, traditional forms of mass media are also largely heterogeneous. When faced with such a mix, the public discerns one set of information from another in a complex way, which involves emotions, cognition, and communication.

During the opening discussion, Alejandro Grajal provided the example of educating individuals about climate change during a zoo visit. In his ongoing research to develop a national Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CliZEN), Grajal observed that the emotions people feel when viewing zoo animals bypass the cognitive aspects of processing scientific information. People of various backgrounds and with a diversity of scientific understanding develop an emotional connection to climate change through their emotional connections to the animals. Dr. Gavin Schmidt and Prof. Michaela Maier introduced another aspect of the conference’s focus: the role of journalists and the media. The way in which the media present scientific information affects people’s understanding. They asserted that a disconnect exists between the more immediate aims of journalists and the ongoing and long-term process that defines science. Awareness of this rift is necessary on both sides. Prof. Bromme pointed to the upcoming conference presentations studying the use of the Internet (Web 2.0) for communication among groups within the Public, such as support groups that focus on scientific evidence relevant for their concerns (e.g. a specific disease). Lastly, he also introduced the role of formal education in predisposing our attitudes towards scientific information, another aspect of the conference’s focus.

The DFG-NSF conference was attended by 77 international participants and featured over 50 presentations. It focused on the various projects of a highly competitive DFG-Priority Program similarly entitled “Science and the Public.” For more information, please visit

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  • Featured Speakers

    • Prof. Rainer Bromme

      Department of Psychology, University of Münster, Germany

    • Dr. Alejandro Grajal

      Department of Education, Chicago Zoological Society

    • Dr. Gavin Schmidt

      NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University

    • Dr. Max Vögler (Moderator)

      Director, DFG Office North America