Moving science communication beyond the standard argument
by Shinichi Asao
The general public doubts or misunderstands science, and this prevents politicians from recognizing environmental problems and society from achieving sustainability. Thus, scientists must better educate and communicate to the general public. This is the standard argument made by the majority of us in academia. It is also biased and stands on a myth. I think recognizing the bias and debunking the myth will allow us to discuss science communication more effectively. So let’s first talk about the bias.
Biases behind the premise that the general public misunderstands science
This premise — that the general public doubts or misunderstands science — is biased in two ways. First, we know more than the public does. We wouldn’t be called scientists if we didn’t. And this is true of any specialists. I’m sure if you ask economists they would say that the public does not know very much about economics. Lawyers about law or farmers about food. Because we specialize in science, we are inevitably biased to think that the public has inadequate knowledge.
Second, we distrust the public. This premise is another way of saying that we don’t trust the public to discern facts from fallacy and to think critically. This is either because we have a greater affinity and training to seek facts and reason, or because we underestimate the public’s ability to do so. Neither tells us a lot about how much the public should know.
If we recognize that we value facts and reason more than the public does, then we realize how ineffective it is to just deliver more information.
Like all biased thought, the premise might still be true. But recognizing the bias makes our discussion on science communication more realistic and concrete. If we recognize that we know more science than the public does and that any specialist knows more than the public does, then we realize that the term “general public” is too vague for us to take action upon. Who are they and what do they know are questions we often neglect to ask, and that neglect perhaps holds us back to move beyond the vague call to step out of the ivory tower. If we recognize that we value facts and reason more than the public does, then we realize how ineffective it is to just deliver more information. What specific information and how do we communicate them are questions we need to answer.
Myth of informed decision
The standard argument for more science communication is also based on a myth — that facts and critical thinking will lead to better decisions. First, we rarely if ever make informed decisions. At least I rarely do. I don’t know enough about monetary policy to make any kind of informed decision on whether quantitative easing stimulates the economy or not. I don’t know enough about education and politics to know if charter schools help or hurt education. I don’t really know how much carbon is emitted by importing tomatoes from Mexico compared to growing it here in Colorado. But I still decide. And I’m pretty sure we all decide without enough information all the time.
Second, we make decisions we know are incorrect. Facts are only part of the reasons we make a decision. We all have voted along party affiliation even if the opposing candidate has sensible ideas, simply because we belong on a party. We all have kept a toy, a car, an apartment, or a job even though better options were available, just because we were comfortable with what we had. For that matter, most of us dated people who we knew weren’t compatible and knew breaking up with them was the best choice. To us (ecologists), the decisions on sustainability, climate change, and conservation are simple. Use resources more efficiently, reduce CO2 emission, and protect the environment. But this does not mean that everyone else – perhaps including ourselves – has other personally important reasons to make the incorrect decision.
To us (ecologists), the decisions on sustainability, climate change, and conservation are simple… But this does not mean that everyone else – perhaps including ourselves – has other personally important reasons to make the incorrect decision.
In another words, informed decision is a myth because people are fundamentally much more than a collection of facts. And we know this. A person that trusts science but doesn’t know too much about it and makes incorrect decisions based on feelings? That sounds like a real person to me (sounds like my mom). Someone that doubts and misunderstands science but will make the correct decision once he understands the facts? It doesn’t describe anyone I know. And I’d be offended if my friends described me that way. When we describe a person, we describe them with words like “kind”, “funny”, “sweat”, and never with words like “logical” or “rational” (unless as euphemism for “cold”) because people are ultimately more than logical adherence to facts. The standard argument ignores that.
Enough hippie stuff. How do we advocate change?
I don’t think the standard argument will bring meaningful change. I have three suggestions to increase our chances: understand our audience, organize better at lower level, and pay for better communication.
Perhaps most importantly, we should understand our audience better. The myth persists and the biases go unrecognized because we don’t know our audience and how they relate to us. There are many sources like the informative and interesting Pew poll on science and the general public (they find that over 80% of those polled saw science as improving society, regardless of their gender, income, religiosity or political affiliation. 70% of those polled saw scientists as contributing a lot to the well being of the society, ranking scientists near the top with teachers and medical doctors, and better than engineers and clergy, at a surprisingly low 40%). We have to know to whom we are talking if we want to be understood.
Science communication takes time and effort, and asking every scientists to do their part is inefficient. We should organize the scientists and their message at a department or even a lab group level.
This and more will be easier if we organize better at a lower level. Science communication takes time and effort, and asking every scientists to do their part is inefficient. We should organize the scientists and their message at a department or even a lab group level. Each department should have a professional PR person that passes information from scientists to local mass media ranging from a press release at the university level to the local TV station and newspapers. The PR person should manage public events, and facilitate further discussions. The PR person should also establish and manage a website and various social media and help scientists communicate through them.
And we should pay for PR. We should budget a portion of grant money for this, especially if we do not have a concrete avenue already to communicate within. For most of us, paying a PR professional will produce much better product to communicate science with than paying ourselves to do it on our own.
Beyond advocating for change, we have a duty to communicate science better because scientific knowledge belongs to everyone. To me this means we should start by recognizing our biases and myths, understanding our audience, organizing into a better communication system, and paying for it.
What do you think? Are we really biased? How can we better communicate science? Should we pay for them?