Ever hear of the Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products Act of 2010?
Didn't think so.
As the Environmental Proection Agency explains, the Act (signed into law by President Obama on July 7, 2010, after being passed, obviously, by both Houses of Congress)
establishes limits for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products: hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard. The national emission standards in the Act mirror standards previously established by the California Air Resources Board for products sold, offered for sale, supplied, used or manufactured for sale in California.
The legislation directs the EPA to promulgate implementing regulations relating to "labeling," "chain of custody requirements," "ultra low-emitting formaldehyde resins," "exceptions ... for products ... containing de minimis amounts of composite wood," etc. The agency just issued proposed rules for notice & comment yesterday!
Why am I telling you about this? Well, first of all, because I know you've never heard of this regulatory scheme (if you have, you are a freak and are proud of it, so the point I'm going to make still applies).
Because you haven't, the issue of formaldehyde regulation is absent from your mental inventory of risks managed through the application of scientific knowledge.
Because this law -- along with billions and billions (or at least 10^3's) of others informed by science -- is missing from your risk regulation inventory, there's a serious risk that you are overestimating the frequency with which risk issues provoke cultural polarization.
I'm sure some segment of the population somewhere is really freaked out by formaldehyde and another drinks a glass of it for breakfast everyday just to prove a point. But these citizens are really outliers; whatever group-based conflict there might be about formaldehyde is nothing like the ones over climate change, nuclear power, HPV, guns, etc.
Very very very few risk and other policy issues that turn on science provoke meaningful cultural conflict. The ratio of polarizing to nonpolarizing issues of that sort is miniscule.
That doesn't mean that those issues get regulated in an optimal manner. But it means that one of the largest obstacles to rational engagement with science in policymaking is absent -- and that's an undeniably good thing for enlightened self-government.
The science-informed policy issues that don't provoke controversy are, of course, boring. That's why most people don't know about them.
But if you do notice and give some thought to them, a couple of interesting and important things will occur to you.
First, insofar as the number of science-informed policy issues that could provoke cultural polarization is very small relative to the number that actually do, there must be something, and something strange, going on with the ones that actually do end up generating that sort of division.
It's critical to figure out how to fix a broken debate like the one over climate change.
But we should also be figuring out why this sort of weird pathology happens and how we can avoid it.
That's one of the objectives of the science of science communication. Indeed, it's probably the most important contribution this science can make to the welfare of democratic societies.
Second, if you notice all these boring, nonpolarized forms of science-informed risk regulation, you'll realize that the thing that makes some issues become polarized can't be lack of public knowledge about the science surrounding them.
It's true that members of the public don't know sicence much about climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, etc. But the public doesn't know anything more about the science relating to the vast range of issues that fail to generate polarization.
Members of the public wouldn't score higher on a "formaldehyde science literacy" test than a climate science literacy test.
Formaldehyde scientists aren't better "science communicators" than climate scientists.
That doesn't mean, either, that members of the public are necessarily uniformed.
Obviously, members of the public couldn't possibly be expected to know and understand all the science that is relevant to protecting their health and wellbeing--whether that science informs regulations that protect them from exposure to toxic substances or medical procedures that protect them from diseases.
But just as a reflective individual doesn't have to have an MD to participate in an informed and meaningful way in his or her receipt of high-quality medical care, so a reflective citizen doesn't have to have a degree in toxicology or biology to know whether his or her government is making sensible decisions about how to protect the public generally from exposure to environmental toxins.
In both cases, such a person only has to be able to make an informed judgment that the professionals he or she is relying on to use scientific knowledge know what they are doing and are using what they know to benefit him or her and others whose interests those agents are supposed to be promoting.
Reflective citizens do that all the time. And one of the aims of science communication is to create and protect the conditions in which democratic citizens can reliably exercise this rational recognition capacity.
Those conditions are missing for climate change and other issues that culturally polarize the public. In connection with those issues, citizens' rational recognition faculty is being impaired by toxins -- not ones emitted from "composite wood products" but ones being transmitted, either deliberately or by misadventure, by partisan discourse.
One goal of the science of science communication, then, is to protect the quality of the science communication environment from contamination by antagonistic cultural meanings that convert boring, mundane issues of fact that admit of scientific inquiry into divisive symbols of tribal loyalty.
To acquire and use the knowledge necessary to do that, researchers must avoid fixating only on pathological cases like climate change and ignoring the "silent denominator" (or silent members of the denominator) comprising all the science-informed policy issues that don't generate cultural polarization.
We can't expect to be able to accurately prevent and, failing that, diagnose and treat science-communication pathologies unless we start with an informed and psychologically realistic of what citizens know and how in a healthy body politic.
Hey--did you hear about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act that is garnering bipartisan support in the Senate?!
I didn't think so.