Expertise is not enough for effective science communication

If you have spent your career working on, say black-crested titmice, I’m going to defer to your greater knowledge in any discussion. This isn’t to say that I won’t have questions or be skeptical, but I will understand that our positions are not equal when it comes to knowledge on this subject.

According to Susan Fiske in her excellent talk on the Science of Science Communication at the annual National Academy of Sciences meeting, the public usually gives us the respect our expertise has earned us. This may not be true all over the world, but in the US, the public has a high opinion of science, the overall scientific enterprise, and of us scientists.

So the big question is, why, if this is true, do so many people disbelieve large chunks of the facts of science in areas as diverse as climate change and evolution, vaccination, and genetically modified crops? Part of the problem comes from the other half of effective scientific communication. This is that people want to know what our motivations are. They understand that we are not science producing automatons, but imperfect beings with skin in the game. Getting them to believe us is therefore made up of both compelling facts, interpreted correctly, but also a clear indication of our own interests. Leave either one out, and you will lose people. So, early on in your talks to the public make it clear why you care.

There was a lot of good advice in these talks. No doubt the best place to turn for more are the recent Sackler Colloquia on the topic. I’ll just share one more important piece of advice. That is that people will tune out information that makes the situation sound hopeless. If there is nothing they can do, then there is little point to them listening to you. Even if you think there may be little hope of amelioration, give people something they can do, a hook into the problem. Otherwise they’ll turn to less pessimistic speakers, no matter how unrealistic they are.

There were lots of other good ideas I can’t resist quickly mentioning. For example, the public may trust their common sense or experience more than scientists do. Kathleen Hall Jamieson had a good script for talking. The basic point was to use all the skills we have for really making sure people get our talks. Don’t rush through a figure for example, but build it, one data point at a time, so people live the change if the X axis is time. Her code words were leverage, involve, visualize, and analogize. It is so important to understand that just saying something doesn’t mean anyone understood it. So say less, let us know why you care, and build your argument slowly and carefully. What could be more important to a scientist than actually communicating results?


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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