How To Communicate Science in the 21st Century

Science communication has changed. If you know the tricks, you can be more effective than ever. Credit: flickr user Trondheim Byarkiv

Scientific inquiry is about the pursuit of knowledge to improve our world, so why is it so hard to communicate information that can help everyone? Actually, it doesn’t have to be – just follow these three steps I learned at the Science of Science Communication Colloquium:

1) Meet your audience where they are. It’s easy to assume the more someone knows about a scientific issue, the more they’ll care about it. However, there’s little empirical evidence to support this theory. Other factors, such as age, education, political party, religion, etc., may influence a person more than their understanding of an issue. You can help a person better understand a scientific concept, but unless you can appeal to their emotions or something they already care about, knowledge alone may not increase their support.

So, how does a scientist communicate effectively?

First, keep in mind what your audience wants! It’s not about what you want to say. It’s about what they want to understand. They want:

  • Information that speaks to their values, cares, and fears. Information relating to something they care deeply about and that offers solutions will prevail.
  • Information that is concrete and immediate. This means that scientists need to offer information that is tangible and to avoid leading with abstractions.
  • To work towards a desired outcome that’s possible to achieve. This makes your audience feel engaged.

2) Be upfront. To maintain your credibility as a scientist, you need to be transparent about what you know and what you don’t know. Being upfront about the good and the bad of your topic makes you trustworthy. For example, I recently heard a nuclear power executive talk about nuclear power as a reliable energy source. However, he didn’t mention Fukushima, the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, or negative tradeoffs of this technology, making a large portion of the audience (myself included) skeptical. If you’re not giving people the whole picture, they’ll think you’re hiding something.

Even if you’re not a scientist, you can still be credible when speaking about science by using your shared set of values as a bridge to credibility. For example, if you’re a community leader that values environmental stewardship, talk about that and what the members of your community can do to help to preserve a local forest, reduce carbon emissions, or keep local rivers and beaches free of trash and how working together for these common goals will help build a stronger community.

3) Give examples that will resonate with your audience. You might understand why increased CO2 in the ocean is a problem, but if you want the public to care, giving them a chemistry lesson won’t help. Instead, provide concrete examples that show how scientific issues affect people’s daily lives–like, for instance, that ocean acidification is to blame for the near-demise of the $278 million shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest. Never assume that your audience will naturally make connections between big-picture problems and their own lives.

I care about how science is communicated because I want people to love and care about the ocean. As a biologist, I want to equip people with the information they want and need to make informed daily choices, political decisions and management options that preserve and help our ocean while meeting our needs. What are your experiences with communicating science? What challenges and successes have you had and what drives you to talk about science?

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2 comments
DawnShiang
DawnShiang

@UrsinaKohler @dowchemical @neilchawkins Great suggestions in the article. We have to be effective communicators about #STEM.

brandonmbreen
brandonmbreen

Nice, helpful tips Carmen. Thanks for sharing.