Hurdles to Communicating Science & Strategies to Overcome them

Communicating science is hard in part because doing and understanding science is hard, but there are also some unique hurdles that science communicators face — especially when communicating information that’s relevant for policies. James Druckman recently described some of the challenges that particularly face people communicating policy-relevant science, and ways those challenges can be minimized.

Value-laden diversity

We all have values, relatively unchanging beliefs that reflect the way we see the world. For example, some people are more “individualist,” while others are more “communitarian.” If scientific information seems to contradict a value, we’ll be hesitant to accept that information. Information about climate change, especially if it contains or implies suggestions for reducing the problem by increasing regulations on businesses, might contradict an individualist’s values, making it hard for that person to even consider the scientific information. For more on this hurdle, see Dan Kahan’s work on The Science of Science communication, an earlier post on this blog about Kahan’s work, or a great post by Chris Mooney on Mother Jones.

What to do about it

First, communicators have to recognize that their audience will have a diverse set of values, some of which will conflict with the communicator’s values, and that these values will influence the way people receive scientific information.

Next, communicators should minimize the extent to which their message contains a value commentary. In other words, they should make sure the relevant science comes into play for certain policy decisions without defining “good” or “competent” decisions.

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Hurdles start. by robert voors. CC BY-NC-ND.

Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning (or confirmation bias) is our drive to seek information that reinforces our prior beliefs and disregard information that does not. For example, in work by Duckman & Bolsen (2011), participants initially indicated their support for genetically modified (GM) foods. After 10 days, all participants received 3 types of info: positive information about how GM foods combat diseases, negative information about their possible longterm health consequences, and neutral information about their economic consequences.

People who initially supported GM foods dismissed the negative information and rated the positive information as valid, and perceived the neutral information as indicating benefits of GM foods. People who were initially opposed to GM foods did the exact opposite: dismissed the positive information, considered the negative information as valid, and interpreted the neutral information as indicating drawbacks of GM foods. Work on motivated reasoning shows we interpret information through a lens laden with our prior beliefs.

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Last of the crop. By Mrs eNil. CC BY-ND-NC.

There have been lots of great articles highlighting motivated reasoning lately. These include Why Facts don’t Change our Minds, This Article won’t Change your Mind, and Why You Think You’re Right, Even When You’re Wrong.

What to do about it

When motivated reasoning occurs, people are motivated to understand information in a way that aligns with their previous beliefs. Instead, science communicators want to motivate their audience to understand new information in a way that will lead to maximum accuracy. There are a few things communicators can do to encourage people to seek accurate understandings:

  • Show that the issue and information matter for the individual’s life. Show relevance.
  • Present information that comes from a variety of sources, preferably ones with different goals (i.e., from Democrat and Republican sources)
  • Encourage people to explain their position to others (or at least prepare themselves to explain their position). Elaborating on your position requires people to think it through more carefully, and provide explicit evidence for their claims that goes beyond “because I want to believe this.”

Politicization

This term does not mean what we might expect given its name. Politicization is “the inevitable uncertainties about aspects of science to cast doubt on the science overall…thereby magnifying doubts in the public mind” (Stekette 2010, p. 2). It’s not exactly misinformation, since it doesn’t introduce false findings, but instead magnifies doubt. It’s especially common in issues about global warming and vaccination. People who politicize these issues send the message that scientific evidence on these issues is not as conclusive as it’s been made out to be.

What to do about it

Politicization comes directly from people perceiving scientists or informants as lacking credibility and being motivated to reason in ways consistent with their prior beliefs. Thus, politicization can be countered by addressing those hurdles – establishing credibility and encouraging an accuracy motivation. There are a couple other things we can do to overcome this hurdle:

  • Warn people of politicization they’re likely to encounter before they encounter it. This is sometimes referred to as an inoculation message, and it points out the strategies politicizers use and why their message is not to be trusted
  • Correct politicized messages after people have encountered them. Corrections are often not as effective as inoculation messages since people may have already had time to process and begin to believe the politicized message. However, corrections can be effective when people are motivated to reach an accurate understanding.

There’s more

Of course, these aren’t the only hurdles to communicating policy-relevant science. Other hurdles described by Druckman that I haven’t elaborated on include: communicating policy-relevant science requires effort on the part of scientists, getting and maintaining attention, establishing credibility, and changing government inaction.

More and more scientists are recognizing the value of communicating their science outside the Ivory Tower. At the same time, the science of science communication is advancing to help us all understand the hurdles we face and how to best overcome them.