The Cooler: Don’t Be Such a Science Communicator

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Photo: Flickr user Daniel Spiess under a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

If you could pry open the brain of a scientist who’s learning how to communicate her science more effectively, it would probably look like the back of an old hippie station wagon.

As in: Covered with bumper-sticker slogans masquerading as quick-fix solutions. Use The Message BoxDon’t Be Such a ScientistTell Stories, Not Data. Use the 6×6 Rule for PowerPoint.

It’s a wonder she can remember to breathe, much less get a point across.

Now, a great new piece in PNAS by Dietram A. Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin-Madison argues that many natural scientists and engineers already have lots of training on how to interact with journalists and the public — and that there’s not a lot of empirical evaluations of these techniques’ effectiveness.

Instead, says Schuefele, scientists could be better science communicators if they availed themselves of…scientists.

Namely, social scientists, and the great body of research literature they’ve produced on how people make decisions about science and what Scheufele calls “the science-society interface.”

It’s not that all scientists are horrible at being clear, concise and memorable about science, argues Scheufele.

Many are getting quite good at it. AAAS, NSF, many university and organizations (including The Nature Conservancy) offer their scientists and engineers formal and informal media, speaking and presentation training.

But is knowing how to sit on your coat and lean forward during a TV interview enough? In a world of widespread science illiteracy? Increasingly complex scientific problems like nanotechnology, that kick up impossibly thorny ethical, legal and culturally challenges? Not to mention the evaporation of science journalism, which means the U.S. audience for S&T news has dropped by 50% since 1998?

We now need to understand our audiences — big time, says Scheufele. And that means “systematic input from the social sciences” — on such issues as framing, cultivation and how knowledge diffuses unevenly across socioeconomic strata.

For instance, take the following four assumptions, which seem intuitively true and which scientists make all the time about communicating with the public:

1. Increasing public knowledge about science will lead to increased public “buy-in” for science.

2. Public levels of trust in science are declining, thus threatening public support of science.

3. The mass media is really important in informing the public about science.

4. Science debates should never involve personal values, especially for scientists.

Social science research shows all of these assumptions to be false in important ways. That’s why it’s critical for anyone who wants to communicate science effectively — especially scientists — to avail themselves of some of this research.

The Scheufele essay is part of a PNAS presentation of a May 2012 Science of Science Communications colloquium held at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC — a meeting that has achieved legendary status among science communications practitioners.

That reputation — and the strength of these essays — is another sign that the practice of science communications is growing up…getting serious about audience analysis and knowledge generation, and finally moving away from beat-up station-wagon sloganeering.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues.

Comments: The Cooler: Don’t Be Such a Science Communicator

  •  Comment from Matthew Hall

    You should out the great research of Arthur Lupia, a social scientist at the University of Michigan.

    He studies the communication of science within politicized contexts, the climate debate being primary among them.

    •  Comment from Bob Lalasz

      Thanks, Matthew — I will.

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