Polarization: What does it mean for science communication and decision making? by Sarah Turner

Conference Review- Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020

Sarah Turner, PhD Candidate, University of Manitoba

Twitter: @SarahTurner11

Key points:

  • Sarah Turner attended the 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference and reviews a panel discussion on Polarization and Distrust featuring Ronda Moore, Niilo Edwards, and Monica Gattinger
  • Polarization is a strongly held opinion about a topic that is hard to change
  • Developing a shared narrative can help facilitate discussion about polarizing topics
  • Shared decision-making can help with public buy-in on important issues
  • Strategies to build trust and communication between polarized groups should be included in developing policy strategies

On a late Thursday afternoon in November, I excitedly skimmed through the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) program, planning out my conference sessions for the following week. My eyes quickly darted to session titles with the words “Mis-information” “Polarization” and “Distrust”. These are buzz words in the year 2020, and are challenges for the scientific community. As a budding science communicator, I care about these challenges and how to address them. I was immediately drawn to the session titled “Polarization: What does it mean for science communication and decision making?” Below, I’ll recap this session and highlight some stand-out points from the panelists on how to combat polarization in science and politics.

The panel included three speakers and one moderator. Ronda Moore is the Practice Lead on Science and Innovation at Institute on Governance. Preston Manning is the former leader of the Reform Party of Canada which is now the Conservative Party of Canada. Niilo Edwards is the Executive Director of The First Nations Major Project Collation. The moderator, Monica Gattinger, is the Director for the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

The session began with establishing a common definition of polarization. Polarization occurs when people feel strongly about supporting or rejecting an issue. This is more than just agreeing or disagreeing, it involves a strong opinion that is hardened and difficult to change. A polarized opinion is different from a fragmented opinion, which can vary in terms of agreement and is not as solidified. These different types of opinions can be visualized in the graph below. Research shows that when it comes to energy and climate, Canadians more commonly hold fragmented opinions than polarized ones. This is good news, however, polarization remains a challenge for the political and scientific community.

 Dr. Monica Gattinger explained polarization. Find the research project here

To begin the panel, Ronda Moore, spoke of a recent debate and discussion series at the Institute on Governance that focused on developing a strategy to reverse polarization. The debates covered four controversial topics (immigration; energy and the environment; Western alienation and a polarized electorate). A shared narrative strategy was applied during the discussion period to build one common story that everyone could relate to. The shared narrative strategy combats polarization by uniting people from a place of commonality instead of compromise. An example of a shared narrative is: “We all want access to clean air.” Two other components are critical to making this strategy work: the discussion participants must have empathy and must use ground rules. Empathy is fundamental in helping people to understand how another’s situation, fears and needs are informing their opinion. Discussion ground rules help create a safe environment for people to share and build trust among participants (examples include: listen to everyone’s views and be willing to acknowledge and reconsider personal biases). While this formal process may not be realistic for individual conversation, the principles of empathy and ground rules can be applied to personal engagements to diffuse polarizing conversations and build commonalities.  

The second panelist, Preston Manning, spoke on how to communicate science with policy makers. This is important so that informed decisions can be made in parliament that benefit the majority. The basis of good communication boils down to strong relationships. Strong relationships are built on two-way communication and mutual benefit. The most common type of communication that occurs between scientists and elected officials is to ask for financial support. This misses the mark. While financial support can be part of the conversation later on, it does not lay the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship. To create a two-way relationship, it is important for scientists to frame science issues in ways that make sense and are relevant to the issues policy makers are trying to address. Finally, one of the best ways for scientists to communicate with government is to have a few trained scientists run for public office!

The third and final panelist, Niilo Edwards, shared his experience as the Director of the First Nations Major Project Collation (FNMPC). There is well-known polarization between indigenous communities and government priorities regarding the use of land and energy. The FNMPC works with indigenous communities to make informed business decisions concerning resource development in their traditional territories. This is done through shared decision making between communities and government, which requires time, patience and trust. The same principles of empathy and ground rules can be applied here to minimize polarizing views and to find a shared narrative. Empathy in these discussions means recognizing the historical abuse of indigenous land, and approaching partnerships with the recognition that existing relationships between communities and government are splintered. Importantly, humility can be applied here to see value in both indigenous and Western views of science and application.

My main take away from this conference session is that diffusing polarization requires a good amount of emotional energy and an open mind. When asked “is it possible to reverse polarization?” all three panelists commented with a resounding ‘yes’. Through the strategies of developing a shared narrative, practicing empathy, building two-way relationships and shared decision making, we can address polarization and move towards a more safe, caring and united community.  

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