As you all know, fellow ScienceBloggers Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney published an article in the April 6 issue of Science on the topic of “framing science.” The article has sparked a great deal of (sometimes heated) debate on ScienceBlogs and off (Bora has a list of links, to which I’d add John Hawks, Greg Laden, and Sean Carroll; especially the Laden post, because it points out how wrong Nisbet and Mooney get the idea of “framing” in many places). The impression I’ve gotten from reading this discussion is that most scientists (or at least most science bloggers) agree that we need to do a better job of communicating with the public, but they disagree with Nisbet and Mooney on the particulars. So instead of rehashing that debate, I thought I’d give a different set of particulars. So here are what I think are the three most important things to keep in mind when communicating with the public about science. Much of this is just common sense, but as the saying goes, common sense ain’t so common.
- Be nice. Since many scientists are also educators, you’d think this one would be obvious, but you don’t have to look far to find books and blogs that spend most of their time insulting the very people they need to convince. As I’ve probably said a dozen times before on this blog, if your goal is to educate a group of people (say, the American public), the surest way to fail is to start out by insulting them or their cherished beliefs. This doesn’t mean you have to pretend that beliefs that are fundamentally inconsistent with science — as Young Earth Creationism is with evolution, say — are OK, but it does mean that you can’t start off a discussion with a public that, for the most part, believes in something close to creationism by saying (implicitly or explicitly), “Anyone who believes in creationism is an idiot.” Sure, that way of talking about science works great in the blogosphere, where the goal of many authors is less to convince people that the science is right than to pat themselves and their readers on the back for being the enlightened superiors of the benighted masses, but outside of the blogosphere, it’s just about the worst possible way to get a message across. When speaking with the public, scientists should leave their ego-padding rhetoric behind, and don their educator hats. No successful teacher walks into a classroom on the first day of class and says, “You’re all dumbasses for holding the beliefs that you do, and I am going to spend the next 16 weeks showing you why that is.” That approach only produces a bunch of defensive students who are unreceptive to anything the teacher has to say. It’s of the utmost importance that scientist realize this when speaking to the public outside of the classroom as well.
- Know your audience. Everyone knows this maxim, and scientists in particular have no excuse for not taking it into account when speaking to the public, because they are used to speaking in front of diverse audiences. We all give talks at conferences and to our departments, and while the people who attend talks at conferences or department meetings are all going to be involved in broad disciplines, the chances are a lot of them are not going to be specialists in the particular area of research we’re talking about. So we adjust our message accordingly. If we don’t, disaster ensues, as any scientist who’s seen a really bad conference presentation can attest. But if the content of public debates on issues like evolution, global warming, and stem cell research are any indication, scientists have been doing a really bad job of knowing their audiences.
The reason for this is that knowing your audience is much more difficult than it at first seems. It’s not just a matter of knowing the average education level of the voting public, and their familiarity with the basic concepts of science. Instead, it involves understanding how people represent the information relevant to a scientific topic, knowing people’s associations and biases, along with the emotional valences that these entail, and realizing how all of these things fit into the thinking processes that determine a person’s understanding of an issue, and thus their opinions on it. Scientists who are also educators do this, implicitly, with their students. Teachers who’ve been teaching for a while, and have thus spent a lot of time interacting with students, learn what their students are bringing to the table in terms of values and background knowledge, and adjust their teaching accordingly. Once again, then, scientists should don their educator hats when communicating with the public. This means interacting with the public — and not just the blog-reading crowd that already agrees with pretty much everything you have to say — and learning as much as you can about what the public is bringing to the table.
I know many scientists don’t have time to do this, but this means that those scientists should be keeping their mouths shut. Let those who do have the time and inclination to go out into the world and get a feel for how people are thinking and feeling about issues, and who are motivated to read research on how people think about important issues like evolution or stem cell research, do the talking.
- Words matter. Words are associated with concepts, and concepts are associated with value judgments, so pay close attention to the words you choose. The best example of this, in the context of science communication, is probably the word “theory.” In the context of science, the word “theory” has a fairly specific meaning, but for the general public, it tends to mean something like “conjecture.” If we’re going to the public with a scientific issue, the chances are we’ve moved well beyond conjecture, but because scientists have tended to use the word “theory” when discussing certain issues (as in “evolutionary theory”), they’ve conjured up all sorts of unintended associations in the minds of the public, and opened the door for dishonest anti-science types to take advantage of those associations. It’s very important, then, that scientists choose their words carefully. And choosing words carefully involves paying attention to everything in 2. above. That is, when choosing your words, you have to take into account the concepts that those words invoke, the values and biases associated with those concepts, and so on. Once again, you have to know your audience.
These three principles are pretty abstract, I know, and as a result there will inevitably be substantive disagreements about how to put them into practice. But the point of discussing them this way is to show that framing your message doesn’t have to entail making that message sound consistent with people’s “common biases” (as Hawks puts it), but it does entail knowing what those biases mean, and how they affect people’s reception of your message. Inevitably, of course, some of those biases will be impossible to overcome (at least in people who’ve reached a certain age; old dogs, new tricks, etc.). Perhaps the fourth principle on this list should be, recognize that you can’t convince everyone. Running with the teaching analogy, all but the most naively idealistic teachers recognize that there are some students who are just unteachable. No matter how hard you try, you can’t convince some people that you can learn something about the differences between means by analyzing variances, to take one example. The same is true in the public sphere. There will always be creationists, global warming deniers, people who believe the HPV vaccine is an invitation to children to have sex, and so on. As a result, scientists shouldn’t feel compelled to craft a message that appeals to everyone. Instead, they should do their best to educate as many people as possible, using basic principles of communication that are not, unfortunately, always so easy to implement.