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The science behind science communication

Untypical night at a typical restaurant

Equipped with wooden floor, black-steel ceiling and furniture with different shades of brown, the Kirkwood Station Brewery in St. Louis, Missouri looks like a typical American restaurant during busy hours, where people gather together for beer and food after a long day. In the larger room of this place, four TV screens are broadcasting to the 20-some tables what’s going on locally (the St. Louis Cardinals are going to play an important game!) and worldwide.

But this night, the last Wednesday of September 2015, the audience is not here to watch the baseball game. Some traveled as far as 25 miles to learn about some serious geological science: rock deformation research, or “squishing rocks to study the Earth’s interior”. Besides first-timers like me, most of the audience have attended such Science on Tap events before, and welcome the speaker of the night with great attention and engagement. Dr. Phil Skemer, a young geology professor from Washington University in St. Louis, jokes about the first time giving a lecture with a microphone in one hand and a glass of beer in another, easily earning his first burst of laughter from the crowds.

Dr. Skemer’s presentation was an example of how to effectively communicate science to a lay audience. He used smart analogies like “a toaster-like apparatus which runs current through graphite columns” when explaining how his lab heats up rocks to test their viscosity. By sprinkling his talk with anecdotes, such as Olivine being the October birthday stone, he makes science fun and relevant to everyone in the room, including the waitress. The personality of Dr. Skemer’s stage presence and presentation coaxed some brilliant questions from the audience.

Science on Tap, Café Scientifique and other forms of science communication

Science on Tap is a monthly science communication event organized by Dr. Cynthia A. Wichelman, the associate professor of Emergency Medicine and adjunct professor of Business at Washington University. It is also a local version of Café Scientifique. Café Scientifique has been running for more than 15 years, which was first originated from the UK then spread to North America and beyond, reaching almost every continent on earth (1). Thanks to the pervasiveness of Café Scientifique, every month, no matter your occupation, anyone with curiosity about science can step into a bar, a museum or even a shopping center to join a great conversation with a real scientist. At its essence, these events are opportunities for scientists to discuss their research and discoveries to lay audiences in a relaxed, nonacademic venue – something that scientists have been doing in various forms for many years.

Witness scicomm in action, from the poster session of 2014 summer internship program hosted by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo courtesy of Goddard Studio via Flickr (CC BY).
Witness scicomm in action, from the poster session of 2014 summer internship program hosted by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo courtesy of Goddard Studio via Flickr (CC BY).

Not all science communication has to happen in a brick and mortar, public sphere like Café Scientifique. On the individual level, not to mention various science writers and bloggers, an interesting example is the IFLS, or I F*cking Love Science page on Facebook. When checked at the end of November 2015, IFLS has 22,751,460 followers. As mentioned in a Columbia Journalism Review feature based on an (unsuccessful) interview of its creator Elise Andrew, IFLS is a “journalism’s first self-made brand,” a “one-woman brand” (2). Just like what its name suggests, IFLS is a great popular option for science loving audiences, feeding them frequently with scientific discoveries that simply makes one exclaim: “yes, I f*cking love science!” Starting from a post on IFLS keen science lovers can go for other peer reviewed, more serious science communication resources (such as PLOS journals and PLOS Blogs) to do further self-motivated learning to satisfy their interest and curiosity.

On the society level, science can be communicated to the public, the press and the policymakers by governmental institutions such as NASA, associations of scholars such as the National Academy of Sciences, or editors at the major scientific journals (3). In the same article by Dr. Kathleen H. Jamieson, an American Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania who also serves as the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, she expressed worries about some easy violations of science’s norms in science communication. When such things happen the communicators actually “invite the audience to question whether the underlying science has done the same”. These norms, in Dr. Jamieson’s article, include “championing of critique and self-correction, acknowledgement of the limits of its data and methods, faithful accounts of evidence, and exacting definition of key terms.”

Challenges faced by science communicators

Indeed, there are many more challenges in communicating science to the public, on both the micro and macro levels. On the micro level, cognitive biases exist in every one of us when we make decisions from information (4). For example, one of such biases is the common knowledge effect, which arises when we exaggerate how much of what we know is shared by others (5). Such an effect creates gaps in our communication, when we fail to say things that are seemingly but not actually obvious. Another example is false consensus effect, in which we tend to overestimate the degree to which others agree with us but in fact, when different people look at the same facts, they’ll make different decisions. On the macro level, science communicators not only need to get the public’s attention to science and technology issues that deserve that attention, they also need to “use it well or risk losing or misdirecting it,” as explained by Dr. Baruch Fischhoff from Carnegie Mellon University in one of his talks (4). A perfect case study on the repercussions of failing to direct public’s attention properly happened in 2004, the year of H5N1, or bird flu, which is transmitted from birds to human through feces or blood. After the epidemic, researchers surveyed the beliefs of both health experts and technology experts (6). The results of the survey showed a substantial difference between the two groups. In the first survey question, these groups of experts were asked to judge the probability of the bird flu virus becoming an efficient human-to-human transmitter in the next three years. While health experts assessing the threat more rationally, giving this scenario a probability of around 10%, the technology experts who had heard from both the health experts and public media and “sided with the more worried ones,” gave a near 70% probability. Other disconnections between scientific consensus and public sentiment include issues like evolution, climate change and stem cell research.

Dr. Dietram A. Scheufele discusses science communication strategies at the Science of Science Communication meeting in 2012.

A call for the science of science communication

Most of the abovementioned information is learned from the YouTube videos uploaded by the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia, which are interdisciplinary scientific meetings that bring together empirical social science research to examine the principles and mechanisms behind science communication. Aiming for better, evidence-based ways of science communication, the Colloquia also held the Science of Science Communication meeting in 2012 and 2013. In one talk at the 2012 meeting lead by Dr. Dietram A. Scheufele, professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, the speaker elaborated on several common intuitive assumptions when looking for solutions to challenges faced by science communicators (7). And he explained how empirical research proved these assumptions as wrong.

First Dr. Scheufele talked about the knowledge deficit model, which as quoted from his speech, “attributes public skepticism or hostility to science and technology to a lack of understanding, resulting from a lack of information”. This model assumes that knowing more will make the public change their skepticism, but that’s not what Dr. Scheufele and colleagues found in their empirical study on public opinions (8). Their results showed that people with low religiosity and high science knowledge view stem cell research more positively than people with low religiosity and low science knowledge. The study also found there was no difference in perceptions of stem cell research between respondents that shared high religiosity but had different science knowledge. Such findings suggests that science knowledge does matter to some degree, however, knowledge gets discounted by other factors or considerations, in this case the audience’s religion status.

The second assumption Dr. Scheufele mentioned is that the public doesn’t trust scientists. But according to a public opinion survey conducted by CNS-ASU in 2007, the public actually trust scientists more than the press and religious organizations. When it comes understanding the benefit of nanotechnology, people give most trust to university scientists as a valid source of information9. National Opinion Research Center also has data showing that the public trusting scientists the most has been consistently true over the last 30 years.

The third assumption Dr. Scheufele pointed out is that for meaningful public debate on science-related issues citizens must “think like scientists,” which implies that they apply the same scientific rigor to their arguments that a scientist would. Beyond the fact that the average citizen is not trained this way, Dr. Scheufele explained that this premise is not realistic or feasible for at least three more reasons. First, lay people tend to use information as heuristics or shortcuts and they can easily be biased by their attitudes on certain science topics. Second, even scientists don’t always “think like scientists,” which means that their thinking might be shaped by their political ideologies (10). Third, our perception of science and how science works is heavily mediated by what is portrayed and represented in the media. For example, most of us never met a theoretical physicist in our lives, so we take a shortcut and think that the field is just full of people like Sheldon and his friends in the CBS show The Big Bang Theory. Another way that our perception of science can be influenced is framing. Dr. Scheufele in his talk illustrated his point by showing a snapshot of published article on the screen. When the readers or audience skim over this 2003 article published in The Atlantic titled “Will Frankenfood save the planet?” and its featured illustration that shows a stitched carrot, without even reading the article they’d form an impression of science going wrong rather than some real beneficial progress in the GMO industry.

With all those challenges and less-than-perfect attempts, what’s next for science communication? In the end of his talk in the 2012 Science of Science Communication meeting, Dr. Scheufele emphasized the importance of delivering ongoing empirical evaluation of how science communication is received and digested by the public, which requires continuing collaboration from social scientists (7). Dr. Scheufele said he believes that science communicators, research institutes, and government need to form “sustained social science efforts surrounding emerging technologies” and to build “formalized interfaces between social and natural sciences.” With no doubt, it will be a long-term difficult mission with no-need-to-reiterate benefits. The good news is, to build a better future for science communication, every “you” and “me”, the readers and the writers, we are all in this together.

3. Jamieson KH. Communicating the value and values of science. Issues in Science and Technology. Fall 2015
5. Nickerson RA. (1999) How we know – and sometimes misjudge – what others know. Psychol Bull, 125(6):737–759.
6. Bruine de Bruin, W., Fischhoff, B. Brilliant, L. & Caruso, D. (2006). Expert judgements of pandemic influenza. Global Public Health 1(2). 178-193
8. Ho, SS., Brossard, D., and Scheufele, DA. (2008) Effects of value predispositions, mass media use, and knowledge on public attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Vol. 20, Issue 2, pp. 171-192.
10. Corley, EA., Scheufele, DA., Hu, Q. (2009) Of risks and regulations: how leading U.S. nanoscientists form policy stances about nanotechnology. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 11, Issue 7, pp.1573-1585

For more insights into science communication, check out the PLOS SciComm blog.

  1. Good article on science communication. I am a medical doctor from India. Always felt that lack of proper communication is one of the major obstacles in gaining trust from patients. I think all of us in the scientific community should get involved in efforts to educate the public about our work and the research behind it.

  2. […] The science behind science communication For example, most of us never met a theoretical physicist in our lives. We take a shortcut and think that the field is just full of people like Sheldon and his friends in the CBS show The Big Bang Theory. Another way &#8230. In the end of his talk in … Read more on PLoS Blogs (blog) […]

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