Once a norm had been established, a group of confederates — a coalition of activists that varied in size — then pushed for a change to the norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure. The researchers also tested the strength of their results by increasing the payments people got for adhering to the prevailing norm. Memory length is a key variable, and relates to how entrenched a belief or behavior is.
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For example, someone whose beliefs are based on hundreds of past interactions may be less influenced by one change agent. Whereas someone who considers only their more recent interactions would be more easily swayed. We found, both theoretically and experimentally, that a much smaller fraction of the population can effectively do this. Conversely, it can also prompt large-scale anti-social behaviors such as internet trolling, internet bullying, and public outbursts of racism.
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The full text of "Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention" can be found here. Media Contact: Julie Sloane, julie. How would that change science? Today, scientists are among the most trusted of all professionals in the UK. Yet research also shows that 71 per cent of UK adults do not feel able or inclined to discuss and engage with science.
So science is well respected by society, but people feel disconnected from it.
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It points us to the difference between respect and engagement, and how too much of the former might impede the latter. Normal times see little critique, celebration, challenge, or championing of science by non-scientists. Is this because we have just a little bit too much reverence for the scientific profession? The scientific method can explain the world around us in an elegant and creative way, but scientists cannot escape the influence of external pressures and personal bias. As Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, argues, a reduction in trust can be beneficial for those involved.
In medicine, decades of activism and the prevalence of health information online is forcing greater transparency and improvements in medical practice. Can this approach be extended to the rest of science? For more people to be involved in science, we have to create a shared understanding of what science is. But we have to recognise that it can have a dark side as well. Last year, for instance, we marked the centenary of the start of the First World War.
It was one of the earliest — but certainly not the last — conflicts where the products of science were used to gas other human beings in their hundreds of thousands. Mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene were developed and deployed by both sides, despite previous treaties having banned them. Nearly , British troops alone were struck by chemical attacks; non-fatal doses often scarred or afflicted soldiers for life.
For many, this was the moment when we really became aware of the indiscriminately destructive potential of science.
But, as part of the same conflict, science was also used to develop innovations such as blood transfusion, prosthetic limbs and reconstructive surgery. Science does not exist in a moral vacuum. It is not inherently good or evil, but a platform for expressing human instincts, whether they be violence, kindness or creativity.
We should celebrate new discoveries such as the Higgs Boson and the Mars Rover but we also need to find a space where scientists and the public can be involved in a debate about responsible scientific innovation. Both the innovators and the rest of us need to be held to account. The financial sector shows us what can happen when this accountability is missing. In the wake of the financial crash, politicians and commentators of all stripes talked of the crisis also being an opportunity to have a public debate on the rebalancing of our economy and how our financial system should work.
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It is vital that the processes and products of science are readily available for the public to understand and interrogate. One of the distinctive strengths of science is peer review; the process by which scientists hold each other to account. But this leaves most scientists in a fairly unique position of self-regulation. Many other professions and sectors have had this privilege or responsibility removed.
In politics, a range of people hold our government to account for the decisions they make about our society. Journalists, judges, members of the public, websites such as They work for you, campaign groups. They all critique politicians, and ask for transparency — in science, it is only other scientists that do this.
A broader community of critical friends would be good for science as a whole, and not just specific areas of research. This extended peer community, as advocated for by Funtowicz and Ravetz , should include representatives of all those that are affected by the subject and that are willing to discuss it.
The breadth of their experience would be invaluable in keeping a check on what scientists are doing. Most of the Research Councils themselves, who disburse funding on behalf of the taxpayer, suffer from the same problem. For how many other sectors would this lack of independent input be tolerated? The group currently includes several people who have undergone IVF — people who are directly affected by the technology that the authority regulates. This is a strong first step towards making funding and regulatory bodies truly representative of the population.
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