Effective communication about science is crucial in so many ways, so it’s interesting that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently issued a report dealing with the various issues, and proposing more support to help the industry better communicate its results.
The paper argues that communicators need to go beyond the ‘deficit model’, which focuses on relaying more information, towards a fuller and richer method of communication.
“Science communication is a complex task and acquired skill. There is no obvious approach to communicating effectively about science, particularly when it is a contentious issue such as climate change, stem cells, vaccines, or hydraulic fracturing,” the team say. “More research needs to be conducted to strengthen the science of science communication and work toward evidence-based practices.”
Moving beyond the deficit
The deficit model suggests that people don’t accept scientific findings because of a lack of understanding or information. That may be overly simplistic however, and people may reject science for a number of reasons. Indeed, people rarely act purely on scientific grounds, with their own goals, skills and beliefs taken into account too. So focusing purely on knowledge is not enough.
This is particularly evident when findings are controversial, and therefore clash with existing beliefs and values. The report suggests that more needs to happen to effectively convey the scientific consensus as well as uncertainty.
Central to this is properly engaging with the public about science so that a degree of common ground can be found, and trust forged.
The report also highlighted the different media by which the public consume scientific information, and I’ve written a few times previously on the slow takeup of Twitter and other social channels by academia, even as alternative measuring systems such as Alt-Metrics emerge.
As you can see, science communication is a complex and diverse thing, so it’s important to take a systems based approach that understands each of the interrelated parts. Indeed, communicators could do well by taking a leaf out of research methods themselves, and conduct randomized control trials to test the best methods in the field.
In a ‘post-truth’ world, the report also advocates greater research into the way misinformation spreads, and how it can be debunked. It’s a topic I’ve covered a few times, but in such an emerging field it’s more important now than ever before.
Science plays such a crucial role in our lives, and the role of experts and evidence have come under attack from politicians around the world in recent months. It’s crucial therefore that the industry better understands the ways to effectively communicate findings accurately, whilst also dispelling misinformation in the most effective manner.
The report probably provides as many questions as it does answers, but understanding ones weaknesses is a good start point for improvement, so in that sense it’s welcome.