TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: CHAPTER 3

For the past two days, I’ve posted my highlights of the 127-page guide for communicating science and research agenda published by the National Academies of Science (ch1, ch2). Today I’m sharing my highlights from Chapter 3.

Chapter 3: Nature of science-related public controversies

There’s no shortage of controversial science issues to communicate about:

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The report points out three features that controversial science issues often share:

  1. Conflicting beliefs, values, and interests of individuals and organizations are central
  2. The public perceives that the science itself or its implications are uncertain
  3. Influential groups and people succeed in having their voices heard above many others, making it hard for scientific evidence to come through

Religious views in particular can play a more central role in beliefs about controversial science issues than political ideology:

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There are some strategies for reducing the effects of competing beliefs, values, and interests (1 above):

  • Tailoring messages from science for understanding and persuasion
    • When information is presented in a way that’s consistent with people’s values, they tend to be more open-minded about the message than when the same information is presented inconsistently.
    • Audience Segmentation: the practice of dividing a large potential audience into subgroups and tailoring messages differently for each subgroup. Research on this area is very new, but it has the potential to help researchers understand how much of an effect science communication can have, for whom, and in what contexts
  • Engaging the public
    • The most effective public engagement happens as early as possible in a public debate, and stakeholders should be engaged over many rounds of discussion. “Repeated deliberation over time builds trust.” (p. 58)
    • We need more research to understand the structures and processes that encourage effective science communication in public forums across a range of issues and controversies.


Research also suggests some ways to deal with public perceptions of uncertainty (issue 2 above):

  • When there are inaccurate claims of uncertainty (for example, claims that not all scientists believe climate change is a result of human activity), it can be useful to use repeated communications to convey the extent of expert agreement. These communications should occur in a variety of places, involve diverse people, and take many forms, like conversations, social media, presentations, advertising, communication campaigns, and media interviews.
  • It also seems beneficial to be explicit about the uncertainty that’s present in scientific understanding, and particularly depicting how uncertainty decreases over time. This tactic might build credibility and also garner public interest in a scientific story that unfolds over time.
  • But more research is needed on the most effective ways of presenting risks of varying degrees of uncertainty

Finally, the report discusses strategies for ensuring that science is heard among amplified voices of organized interests and influential individuals (issue 3 above):

  • Debunking misinformation
    This can be especially difficult when the false belief is consistent with how people already think about an issue. Communicators should be aware that repeating false information, even if doing so in order to correct it, may reinforce the belief. Corrections may be ineffective if inaccurate information as been repeated enough already. One strategy is to “prebunk” the information when possible by warning people that they might encounter misinformation and explaining why that information is being promoted. But more research is needed to reveal when and for whom this is an optimal strategy.
  • Work with opinion leaders to inform and persuade

This chapter confronts a major hair-pulling issue for science communicators. While communicating science might be hard to begin with, communicating about controversial issues seems at times impossible. The chapter shines light on what prior research can show us about effective communication despite an issue’s controversial nature and articulates areas for future research to continue improving in this direction.

Tomorrow I’ll break down chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment.


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