Beliefs define our thoughts on embryonic stem cell research – no matter how hard the media try

By Anke van Eekelen

One of the endeavours of science communication is to better inform the public on controversial issues, which typically arise from unprecedented scientific progress made. A good example of such a heated topic of debate in life sciences is the use of embryonic stem cells to develop potential cures for thus far fatal diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

You would hope that the public’s attitude towards an issue like this is steered by the availability of various media sources to update each and everyone in lay language on the state of the art of stem cell research and its clinical implications. A frequently used theory in public opinion research, referred to as the scientific literacy model, implies that being more informed drives a change in behaviour. In the context of embryonic stem cell research, this assumption would predict increased public support for their use in the lab and clinic, the more media covers basic knowledge on the topic.

However, a fairly recent study by Ho, Brossard and Scheufele from The University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA, shows the opposite. Regardless of more knowledge becoming available via TV news reports and newspaper articles, values in life and moral thoughts on the issue weighed heavier in the public’s opposing stand on embryonic stem cell use.

Ho and co-workers undertook a longitudinal study on how opinion formation on embryonic stem cell research was shaped between 2002 and 2005. What sets their study apart is the use of a national panel survey of the American people; an ideal way of collecting data from the same individuals at various time points during the study period. This type of approach is essential to study causality between religious and ideological views, mass media use, scientific literacy and public attitude towards stem cell research.

There is no denial that exposure to science news on TV or in the newspaper positively influenced the attitude towards progress in stem cell research. Apparently, a focus in the campaign for embryonic stem cell use on celebrities, like actor Michael J. Fox (a famous Parkinson’s patient actively supporting better clinical outcomes; http://www.michaeljfox.org) and the son of past president Ronald Reagan (who died from Alzheimer’s in 2004), was a strategic winner. Personification of the problem may have opened the eyes of the public to the benefits of legalizing its use to the quality of life of those affected by devastating but potentially treatable diseases.

More striking though was their observation that “firmly held long-term beliefs” of highly religious or conservative nature, seem to act as filters “to override the potentially positive effect of science knowledge”.

This outcome rightly argues for more research into the interaction of effects of value predisposition, mass media and general scientific knowledge on the public’s attitude of interest. And maybe even life experience (bringing the need to move forward on a controversial issue closer to the individual) should be included as an alternative determinant of public attitude and behaviour towards this kind of ethically challenging issues in science?

Reference

Ho, SS, Brossard, D and Scheufele, DA. 2008. Effects of value predispositions, mass media used, and knowledge on public attitudes towards embryonic stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 20: 171- 192.

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