Needed: More Science on Communicating Science

Nora Newcombe

Scientists often feel that, like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.  Policy makers ignore their evidence. The public stereotypes them as nerdy guys in white coats with glasses. Legislators cut their funding sources and single them out for Golden Fleece awards. FABBS exists to try to address these issues: to get the word out about good science and to defend against misperceptions.

But how can we best do this work? A recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences provides some relevant data and begins to delineate what we know, and don’t know, about the public face of science. It’s the first of a projected three reports from their Public Face of Science project, of which I am a member.

Readers may want to begin by taking an on-line quiz. It’s devilishly difficult, and you may be surprised at your score.

Here are some take-home messages. Although public trust in many institutions is deteriorating in the U.S., public trust in science has been relatively high and stable. This good news surprises many scientists, and it’s a welcome relief. However, trust in science varies importantly by demographics. Elderly and less-educated Americans express lower trust. Even more importantly, against a background of general trust, responses vary by topic; for example, substantial proportions of respondents question the safety of vaccines. Furthermore, attitudes on topics vary by age, education, and other factors in poorly understood ways. No set of factors consistently relates to attitudes. These data suggest to me that we are not very clear about what is going on and need more research to gain the understanding we need to do better.

Here is one example where we need research. Scientists often assume that “to know me is to love me.” Thus, they advocate for more science education, both formal education in school and informal education in museums, zoos, and at science festivals. In addition, there has been recent work on better communication with journalists, such as media training for scientists. However, the American Academy report summarizes evidence that simple knowledge of science, at least as assessed by fact-based quizzes, does not always relate positively to using science in decision making, and sometimes even relates negatively. Thus, more science education may not be the royal road to effecting change. One possibility is that what is needed is more than facts, and maybe not even primarily facts. Perhaps the public needs to understand the process of science: its curiosity-driven essence, it’s (ultimately) self-correcting nature, what it counts as evidence and what it doesn’t. That’s a plausible hypothesis, but it needs evaluation.

In short, the behavioral and brain sciences are essential to meeting the challenge of understanding how best to communicate science, and how to better integrate science in informing private and public decision making. How can scientists better communicate science? What is the role of formal and informal science educators, and the media? Can we teach science reasoning skills at earlier levels? One of the most surprising things I learned in participating on the task force is that we don’t know the answers to these questions. I think we have the tools to answer them, however, so I hope that scientists and funders can work together on answering them.

For the full report, and yet more research questions, see the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report.

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