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Experiments in Lay Cues to the Relative Validity of Positions Taken by Disputing Groups of Scientists

Branden B Johnson
Risk Analysis: An Official Publication of the Society for Risk Analysis 2019 March 25
Risk analysis and hazard management can prompt varied intra-scientific disputes, some which have or will become public, and thus potentially available for lay judgments of the relative validity of the positions taken. As attentive laypeople may include elites as well as the general public, understanding whether and how cues to credibility of disputing groups of scientists might shape those lay judgments can be important. Relevant literatures from philosophy, social studies of science, risk analysis, and elsewhere have identified potential cues, but not tested their absolute or relative effects. Two experiments with U.S. online panel members tested multiple cues (e.g., credentials, experience, majority opinions, research quality) across topics varying in familiarity subject to actual intra-science disputes (dark matter, marijuana, sea-level rise). If cues supported a position, laypeople were more likely to choose it as relatively more valid, with information quality, majority "vote," experience, and degree source as the strongest, and interest, demographic, and values similarity as the weakest, cues. These results were similar in overall rankings to those from implicit rankings of cue reliability ratings from an earlier U.S. online survey. Proposed moderators were generally nonsignificant, but topic familiarity and subjective topic knowledge tended to reduce cue effects. Further research to confirm and extend these findings can inform both theory about citizen engagement with scientific and risk disputes, and practice in communication about science and risk.


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