At UWisc-Madison, Science Literacy and Communication

My friend Dietram Scheufele sat down a few weeks back for a Q&A interview with one of the magazines produced by the the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Scheufele, a professor of Life Sciences Communication at UW, was asked about new directions in science communication.

In the interview, he emphasizes several themes from social science research in the area that we first popularized in a cover article at The Scientist magazine back in 2007 and that we expand on in a lengthy article that is likely to be out later this year. Below are a few key comments from the interviews. I will be talking more about some of these themes in a lecture at the University of Wisconsin on Thursday, June 25.

While most people in CALS study science, you look at how science is communicated and perceived by the public. Why is it important to study this issue?

It's probably more important now than it's ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly.

The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that's not really supported by the research. Most recent studies, including some of our own, show clearly that information is only part of the equation. For one thing, if it doesn't reach certain parts of the audience, we obviously have a problem. But even if we reach everyone, there are still different publics who all use information differently.

Are scientists putting too much faith in information?

Not necessarily. Information is still at the core of the message. But scientists may be too optimistic about the power of information alone, rather than also paying attention to how that information needs to be presented--especially to audiences who traditionally don't pay that much attention to science. We often think that museums, science sections of newspapers and traditional outreach are enough to inform the public. And they do a great job. But simply putting scientific information out there through traditional channels may in fact favor people who already know more or are more interested in science. In other words, we may end up unintentionally widening knowledge gaps.

More like this

I think that the term âgapâ as used in the quote at the end of this post needs to be carefully considered. In my opinion, it sets up a poor framework when describing knowledge or educational differences. The problem with the word âgapâ as I see it is that gaps can be filled from both sides. Thus when that term is used, it conjures up an image in which the gap can be potentially corrected if only one side is âdumbed downâ. The correct imagery ought to be one that demonstrates that the hard work that needs to be done is that of bringing those not yet at the standard upward.

For example, it is good that already knowledgeable people are driven to access traditionally available institutions by desires to acquire even more knowledge. Stopping people from acquiring knowledge is not a good goal. It is focusing only on this audience that would be a problem.

As described in the âNight in the Smithsonianâ post below, a major goal of traditional scientific institutions should be to foster community engagement. The institutions need to reach those that may not have been served in the past. Part of the outreach into the community beyond the institution can be accomplished by helping already knowledgeable people to more effectively communicate what they know to others.