What we learned from 'The Science of Science Communication'

On Oct. 19, Planet Forward hosted Barbara Kline Pope and Dietram Scheufele to present on, “The Science of Science Communication: Telling a Story with Impact.”

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Barbara Kline Pope is the Executive Director for Communications of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Dietram Scheufele is a John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The presenters brought a realistic approach to the pitfalls of science communication and offered some advice for improving it in the future.

Here are the main takeaways from Pope and Scheufele’s presentation:

Times are challenging for science communication. Modern science is complex and transitions from the lab to real life applications faster than ever before. The need for proper and efficient science communication has never been greater. Unfortunately, translators of science are disappearing. There has been a serious decline of science journalists in the past several decades. This means scientists need to learn to communicate their own science more, and there needs to be a more honest science dialogue.

Scientists need to stop blaming the audience for the lack of science communication. Scientists often place the blame on the public for the lack of general knowledge of science. They complain that no one listens to or respects scientists anymore. This is incorrect. The public actually has a favorable view of scientists and overwhelmingly believe science is important. Pope and Scheufele’s advice on this area is to stop blaming the audience and start looking at how to better communicate your message.

Simply producing more science is not the answer. There is a belief that if the public was presented with more scientific facts then there wouldn’t be such polarized views on scientific issues. This ignores that the same scientific fact can mean something completely different to two people. People tend to weigh more heavily facts that they already believe, so providing more facts just reinforces what they already thought to be true. Pope and Scheufele provided a graph that showed more facts can actually lead to greater polarization of beliefs.

It's unrealistic to assume the public will become scientific experts. Humans use shortcuts (heuristics) to make decisions all the time. It would be impossible to make every decision in life by evaluating all the possible facts, so people use shortcuts such as prior experience and feelings to make decisions. The same is true with science. The public is not going to become experts on all scientific issues. They are going to use their prior experience and feelings about scientists and science to aid in their decision making. A solution Pope and Scheufele suggest is to fill these shortcuts with a more realistic and favorable view of scientists.

Scientists need to learn to frame their information better. Scientists are competing for the public's attention. It’s idealistic to believe that by just going out and talking about their science the public will listen. This ignores that scientists are competing against many voices trying to reach the public, and a fair amount of which are louder and more popular. The solution is for scientists to “frame” their science in a way that grabs the audience’s attention. Pope and Scheufele suggest knowing your audience. Do your homework and present your science in a way that interests the audience.

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