Provocative Questions: Supporting Dialogue About Societal Issues in a Changing World

Friday, February 15, 2013
Room 309 (Hynes Convention Center)
Lucy Kirshner , Museum of Science, Boston, MA
The Museum of Science in Boston has designed a set of activities called Provocative Questions that allows Museum visitors to consider how they form opinions about a question where both science and cultural values play central roles.  The exhibit will explore a different health decision every six months as part of a large initiative on human biology. Recent studies by Kahan and others have provided evidence that for science to be recalled and used to inform social decisions, repeated exposure to the science is not sufficient. It is necessary to put the science in a context of social values that are accepted by the learner. This research has impacted the way Provocative Questions has been designed

With funding from the National Science Foundation and input from advisors, including both Dietram Scheufele and Dan Kahan, we’ve prototyped many iterations of components, learning how and what visitors get out of these activities. It has been a circuitous journey with surprising, even humbling, realizations that we want to pass along to others in the “science communication environment.”

Socio-scientific argumentation research in formal education helped us recognize three types of information that can influence an opinion; information from personal experience, from scientific research, and from deeply held social values.  Front-end evaluation found that in discourse by the lay public about health decisions science is poorly represented. Our challenge became twofold; to add scientific information in a way that the public would recall and use, while, at the same time, making participants aware of how opinions are formed. We created opportunities for people to consider each type of information and then practice the skill of recognizing statements as being either statements of scientific information, personal experience or social values. We created a component where two Museum visitors could build their own, independent opinions about a health decision, with an opportunity to discuss each step of the process.

This presentation will describe missteps we made with traditional scientific argumentation, and our new insights and understanding about social values. Meta-cognition is always a challenging goal, but we hypothesize that understanding how opinions are formed along with practice in the skills, will support people as they form opinions, change the way they hear the arguments of others, and thereby guard against “pollution in the science communication environment.”