The Society for the
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Science Sells: Interest in Communication Science is Growing

8 April 2011

An article appeared on the science blog site Big Think this week, Re-Defining Science Communication: Emerging Best Practices that Empower the Public, which was penned by Melanie Gade, a student of the political communications scholar Matthew C. Nisbet at American University. Gade’s perspective on science communication is that “traditionally, delivery of scientific data has lacked context, making it difficult for the public to ascribe value to the importance of the data.  Current science communication models operate on the premise that informed decisions must be based on solid science, to the exclusion of the public's values and identities.” This observation can form the basis of new approaches in communication of climate science (to name just one important area of science policy) that have a more positive impact in shaping public opinion.

To meet the requirements of a more social and value sensitive approach to communication, Gade picks out some of the nuggets of scientifically informed wisdom. They include avoiding speaking in scientific code (“positive trend” might sound like a good thing to the public rather than an upward movement), using metaphors, and focusing on very recent studies to communicate urgency. Overall, she says, “Scientists should view themselves as honest brokers of information who seek to involve the public in a discussion by translating scientific advice in a way that is meaningful and useful to individuals without imposing a set of policy directions.”

A more psychological approach to science communication was put forward recently by a SPSSI Marshal Fellow, Dr. Jutta Tobias, in her briefing paper, Advocacy for Social Change. Dr Tobias covered a number of approaches informed by psychological research that can be effectively incorporated into science policy planning. Minimize “outgroup” perceptions: if ideas are associated with an establishment of group that is distant or strange for the listener, modify them to be ‘closer to home’. Provide instant gratification: messages should be framed in such a way that communicates direct benefit for the listener. Keeping up with the Joneses: use the incentive to go with the latest fashion or trend among peers. The feel-good factor: messages can use humor or aesthetic appeal to become more agreeable to listeners.

Interest in the impact of such techniques is growing. In March New Scientist carried an article suggesting that the best way to create favorable views on climate science was to change the messenger so that they were more acceptable to skeptics. The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University is one organization that has been turning research in the area into ideas that can be applied in the policy field. At the national level, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology with a wealth of resources for scientists and policy makers.

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin