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Science Communication

by Rudy M. Baum
May 28, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 22

I attended an informative two-day colloquium last week on “The Science of Science Communication” sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

The talks covered a fairly broad range of topics of interest primarily to scientists who are concerned about communicating with the general public. For me, there were a couple of basic take-home lessons from the colloquium: Everyone wants to do a better job communicating science. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do and there don’t seem to be any quick or obvious fixes for the problem.

Several presentations addressed the reasons behind the apparent disconnect between scientists and the general public, a disconnect that is all the more inexplicable, according to Dietram A. Scheufele, because science and technology are so obviously central to U.S. national interests. Scheufele, the John E. Ross Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said some of the blame lies with the lay public because many people have “little factual knowledge of science.” Just as important, however, is that the pace of change in science has dramatically increased and many scientific topics are associated with complex ethical, legal, and social implications. Scheufele noted that some common assumptions about the problem of science communication—such as that the public doesn’t trust scientists—have been shown to be untrue.

Arthur Lupia, the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, observed that blaming the public isn’t particularly useful and that scientists should adopt the attitude that “the problem is us.” Lupia pointed out that the worthy goal of engaging and informing the public through education to change their views about science often fails for a number of reasons. Among them, he said, is that “people don’t always pay attention, and when they do, they often don’t remember what we want them to remember.”

Science communicators, Lupia said, are in a battle for the scarce attention of their audience. To get people’s attention, the message “must imply a large delta in pleasure or pain—that is, convey urgency.” Nonscientific audiences need to care about what a scientist is saying, Lupia said, and they want to hear about things that are “concrete and immediate” and desired outcomes that are “possible to achieve.”

Another speaker, Jon A. Krosnick, the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities & Social Sciences at Stanford University, discussed extensive research on public opinion about climate change. Krosnick began by pointing out that many news organizations and some conservative politicians have suggested that public acceptance of the idea that human activity is affecting the global climate has declined significantly in the past decade. Extensive survey data collected by Krosnick and coworkers between 1997 and 2012 demonstrate that that just isn’t so.

For example, when asked whether they thought global warming was occurring, in 1997, 79% said yes; in 2007, 84% said yes; and in 2012, 77% said yes. When asked whether they thought the warming had been caused by humans, was natural, or a combination of both, in 2006, 80% said it was caused by humans and in 2012, 70% said humans. Krosnick’s surveys also indicate that some of the bad press that climate science and climate scientists have gotten—the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia in 2009 and errors in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—had little discernible effect on the public’s perception of the integrity of climate science and scientists.

Krosnick said that “trust in a natural scientist is merited if he or she talks about science.” However, he noted, when a scientist crosses the line into a discussion of public policy based on that science, public trust declines significantly.

Day two of the colloquium focused on how the media’s coverage of science affects the public’s perception of science. It and featured a panel consisting of John P. Holdren, the current presidential science adviser, and three of the four living previous presidential science advisers: Neal F. Lane, John H. Gibbons, and Frank Press. The entire colloquium has been posted on the NAS website.

Thanks for reading.

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