Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (Chapter 1 TLDR Guide)

Happy New Year! If one of your resolutions is to do better science communication this year, you might be interested in this 127-page guide for communicating science effectively published by the National Academy of Sciences. It’s thorough, filled with references to empirical work on science communication, especially about controversial topics (like climate change, energy, vaccines, obesity, and food safety). But it’s 127 pages. I’ve broken it down to share my greatest takeaways, and will post my TLDR guide to one chapter each day this week.


Chapter 1: Using science to improve science communication

Most science communication rests on the assumption that when science is communicated well, the public has a better understanding of an issue and more science-backed attitudes toward the issue. But actually we don’t know this assumption is true.

Science communication can be broken down into different goals, and the particular goal at hand should be considered for communication efforts. The report listed:

  • Share findings and excitement for science
  • Increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and acting in the world
  • Increase knowledge and understanding of science related to a specific issue that requires a decision
  • Influence opinions, behavior, and policy preferences to accord with scientific evidence
    • Related debate: Where should scientists draw the line for using science to persuade? Sometimes what may start out as science communication can become communication about policy or behaviors that lie outside the strict domain of science…
  • Learn about diverse groups’ perspectives about science for consideration in seeking solutions to societal problems

A common but misleading model of science communication is the deficit model.
Screen Shot 2016-12-18 at 2.59.34 PM.png

The deficit model is inaccurate for most science communication concepts since scientific “facts” are complex and can often be interpreted in different ways. Plus, there are often many mediators in science communication. Information doesn’t simply go from scientists to audience (often), but instead is first disseminated to different organizations, media, and others, who in turn add their own voice to the issue when communicating it. Plus, as mentioned earlier, communication of knowledge does not necessarily mean the communication goals will be achieved. And of course there are layers of complexity, for example that different messages will achieve different successes with different audiences.


I’ll blog about the next chapter tomorrow. It focuses on the complexity of communicating scientific information to provide scientists and communicators with explicit awareness of the challenges they face and begin to overcome them.

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