Link: On the science of science communication

2 minute read

The College of Life Sciences here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has a very strong department of Life Sciences Communication, with some world-leading researchers in the effects and practices of science communication.

I wanted to link to this interesting interview of Dietram Scheufele, who has been working to understand what leads to effective communication of scientific research to the public: “Dietram Scheufele on #scicomm: What scientists can do to promote science and explain their work”.

Much of the interview addresses the fragmentation of the media environment and the increasing “bubble” effect in which people only see stories and news that they already agree with.

Science journalists are translators that speak the language scientists speak and can take years of complex science and rewrite it so it matters to people. Those translators are largely gone. We’re now at a point where fewer than 20 states still have newspapers with science sections. We no longer have the authoritative voice that tells us why science is important, why this finding matters for our personal life. We have to figure it out ourselves.

This is an important phenomenon for those of us engaged with the public to understand. It affects human origins a bit less than many other fields of science. I used to think that human origins research was insulated because the kinds of voices people listened to were always expert; I now suspect that the trendline seems flatter just because our field never did a very good job of communicating its results to the public.

In any event, the landscape has changed.

So, what can scientists and others who want to promote science do instead of just giving people more facts?
The thing that great science communicators are so good at is taking scientific facts and connecting them to things that matter to people. Motivated reasoning can be a problem but it’s also the path to the solution. It basically tells us that if we want to communicate meaningfully with an audience, then we need to communicate where their values and concerns are. We need to say, “This matters to your values and this is why. I, as a scientist, am as excited as you are as a potential user of this.” And we have to remember to speak to what their concerns are, not what we think their concerns or their values should be.

That last point is of central importance.