A US team of social scientists have studied science communication trainers (people who run workshops and programmes designed to help scientists reach out to the public). Two of the social scientists, John Beasley and Anthony Dudo, have written an essay about their work which can be found in a May 31, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),
For some scientists, communicating effectively with the public seems to come naturally. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson currently has more than five million Twitter followers. Astronomer Carl Sagan enraptured audiences for decades as a ubiquitous cosmic sage on American televisions. And Stephen Jay Gould’s public visibility was such that he voiced an animated version of himself on “The Simpsons.” But, for most scientists, outward-facing communication is not something they’ve typically thought about much… let alone sought to cultivate.
But times change. Leaders in the scientific community are increasingly calling on their scientist colleagues to meaningfully engage with their fellow citizens. The hope is that such interactions can improve the science-society relationship at a time when we are confronting a growing list of high-stakes, high-controversy issues including climate change, synthetic biology and epigenetics.
The gauntlet has been issued, but can scientists meet it?
Originally published as a May 30, 2016 essay on The Conversation, here’s more from the essay written by John Besley and Anthony Dudo,
The answer to that question [whether scientists can meet the challenge of communicating in a high-stakes, controversy-ridden environment] largely depends on one key group: professional science communication trainers who offer formalized guidance designed to improve scientists’ public communication efforts. There’s a wellspring of science communication programs, among them the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Programs like these typically provide communication courses of a half-day up to a week or more. Some organizations also employ in-house personnel to train their scientists to communicate.
This is quite a fascinating look at the unspoken assumptions that trainers and trainees (and people like me) make about science communication. Here’s a little bit about the research (Note: Links have been removed),
In late 2014, we conducted a set of 24 interviews with science communication trainers from across the United States. Ours is the first published study examining this important community. We found that much of the training they provided focused on helping scientists share their research in clear ways that would increase knowledge.
This is consistent with what scientists have told us in surveys: their main objective in communicating their work is to inform the public about science and correct misinformation.
The authors acknowledge the importance of these assumed reasons while noting others which are not assumed (Note: Links have been removed),
… there are other reasons scientists might want to communicate with the general public. We call these “nonknowledge objectives” – things like fostering excitement about science, building trust in the scientific community, or reframing how people think about certain issues. These objectives are different from a biologist wanting to share with a listener the details on her research on bird migration, for instance. They’re more about people, and forging relationships.
We’ve found that these sorts of nonknowledge goals have a relatively lower priority for scientists compared to the desire to get information across about their direct scientific work. Not surprisingly, only a few of the trainers we interviewed indicated that, at that time, they were explicitly trying to help scientists achieve these other kinds of nonknowledge objectives.
Our work suggests that scientists and the trainers they work with often focus primarily on the successful transmission of science information, leaving those other objectives to fall into place. But there’s a problem with that logic. Decades of science communication research – a research area now commonly referred to as the science of science communication – show that fostering positive views about science requires more than just trying to correct deficits in public knowledge.
The authors have some suggestions (Note: Links have been removed),
Extensive research shows that we tend to trust people we judge to be warm and caring because they seem less likely to want to do us harm. With that in mind, more training could explicitly help scientists avoid doing the types of things that might convey a cold demeanor. …
Related research on what people perceive to be fair or not when it comes to making important decisions could also inform communication training. Studies emphasize the potential strategic value of making sure people feel like they’re being listened to and treated with respect. …
Similarly, given what we know about the value of framing, perhaps more training should help scientists find ways to talk about issues that are consistent with the scientists’ work but that are also consistent with the priorities or worldviews of the people with whom they are speaking. For example, given the value that people put on their families’ health, it may make sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.
Besley and Dudo have made some good points and I largely agree with the point about framing but it seems to me there are some limits to it. For example, how do you relate the Higgs Boson to someone’s life? I suspect they wanted to focus on only a few issues.
But then, they included this image directly below “… sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.”
Most people will read that image as the scientist (young man) communicating with the public (two old ladies). Unfortunately, one of the tropes in science communication is to communicate ‘as if you’re explaining it to your grandmother’. It’s a lot politer than the phrase ‘dumbing down’.
I like to think the two older women are scientists explaining something to an interested party but without a supporting caption it remains a less likely fantasy than the reverse with the young man being the scientist. (One of my favourite websites addresses that trope directly with it’s title, Grandma Got STEM, [STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and supporting content.)
(a) It’s very easy to walk into the trap or reinforcing stereotypes, (b) everyone does, and (c) it’s hard to find images that challenge tropes unless you’re willing to stage them which can be time-consuming and might even cost money.
Getting back to the essay,
There are at least two challenges associated with suggesting a more strategic approach to science communication.
First, it is easier to communicate in ways that come naturally and simply hope for the best.
Second, there is a danger that some people will misconstrue being strategic as being dishonest. On the contrary, effective strategic communication rests on authenticity, just like science. Science communicators should never do things like pretend to be warm, fake listening or frame things in ways they don’t think are appropriate.
The point is that by thinking strategically, we can begin to recognize that our communication choices – whether it’s leaving time after a talk for real discussion, calling those with whom we disagree ugly names or framing every disagreement as a war – have consequences.
I encourage you to read the whole piece as Dudo and Besley have a lot of interesting things to say. There’s also an April 5, 2016 interview of Besley and Dudo by Brooke Smith for Compass Blogs. The Q&A format highlights their open access Feb. 25, 2016 paper titled ‘Scientists’ Prioritization of Communication Objectives for Public Engagement’ published on PLOS ONE.
And, here’s a link to and a citation for their most recent paper on the subject of science communication and its trainers,
Qualitative Interviews With Science Communication Trainers About Communication Objectives and Goals by John C. Besley, Anthony D. Dudo, Shupei Yuan, Niveen Abi Ghannam. Science Communication June 2016 vol. 38 no. 3 356-381 doi: 10.1177/1075547016645640
This paper is behind a paywall.