I think it would be useful to discuss the purpose of public dialogue when it comes to controversial issues, particularly if the issues are complex.
My starting point is that issues are controversial for different reasons, and these I divide roughly into the interest-based (competing or conflicting commercial, sectoral or personal career interests); the values-based (different ethical, religious, ideological beliefs); and the fact-based (different understandings, interpretations or weighting of evidence). There are also those based on bad communication and consequent misunderstanding.
I would be interested to know what people think are the possible purpose(s) of public dialogue for each of these types of conflict. In the case of the interest-based, for example, one purpose could be to try to reconcile them - but this would suggest stakeholder rather than public dialogue. Likewise, if it's all down to poor communication, getting the protagonists to stop shouting and start listening might be useful - but why involve the public?
If conflict stems from different interpretations of evidence, likewise, I can see the point of exploring how those differences have arisen with the protagonists - but, again, why involve the public?
Only when it comes to discussing value-based differences is there clearly a role for the public because it is useful for policy makers to understand why members of the public think the way they do. But if the purpose is to lay out the reasons for differences, then surely it is a research process rather than a dialogue process? But maybe the purpose should then be to see to what extent such differences can be reconciled?
I shall be interested to know what others think.
Originally published on the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre forum. Reproduced with their kind permission.
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