The pitfalls of using public meetings to set science policy

Town hall meetings may be a good way to hear a range of strong opinions, but as measure of overall community opinion on an issue, they leave lot to be desired, especially when it comes to highly contentious issues. Some CALS communication researchers helped demonstrate by studying an issue that many on campus remember well: The siting of the Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

One of the proposed sites was on UW-Madison land near Lake Kegonsa. That site was rejected, to a large extent because it was rated low in terms of “community acceptance,” which the DHS considered to be an important criterion.

Town-hall meetings were a key tool used by DHS to rate “community acceptance,” and the accuracy of that measure was the subject of the study by Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard of CALS’s life sciences communication department and Andrew Binder, who recently  earned his Ph.D. through that program and is now at North Carolina State University. They summarized their results in this opinion piece in a recent issue of The Scientist.

The team looked at DHS’s rating of community acceptance in the six NBAF finalist communities they studied, and compared those ratings to what they learned by surveys of the larger populations in those towns and interviewed with local journalists and community leaders.

They found that the intensity of expression of negative opinions in public meetings, amplified by news media accounts, led to significant underestimates of public support. “…[U]sing public meetings may actually promote policy choices that are diametrically opposed to public preferences,” they write.