Uncommon Ground

Science

Communication requires listening and respect

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

As scientists, we tend to think that if we simply lay out the facts, the solutions to the world’s problems will be obvious. Show people the evidence that humans are contributing to global climate change and they will immediately realize that governments and individuals need to work together to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Show them the evidence that vaccines prevent disease with minimal risk and parents will immediately realize that they should make sure their children are immunized against rubella and whooping cough. But of course that doesn’t happen. Why? Because facts aren’t enough. Last month, Richard Grant wrote an article for The Guardian explaining why. He makes two very important points.

  • People don’t like being told what to do.
  • It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.

And he concludes with a very important observation:

Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.

We need to listen more than we talk. We need to understand what people are concerned about and address those concerns. Aristotle understood this a couple of millenia ago (Rhetoric). Blaise Pascal made the same point nearly 400 years ago.

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others. (link)

So let’s listen to people. Let’s try to understand their concerns. And then, let’s figure out what we can do to address their concerns.

Facts aren’t enough

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (attributed: Wikiquotes)

Those of us who are scientists have a tendency to think that if we simply lay out the facts – human activities are causing global climate change, for example – that everyone will listen to us and act accordingly. Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein remind us in a recent New York Times op-ed that the world doesn’t work that way.

[F]or weak believers in man-made climate change, comforting news will have a big impact, and alarming news won’t. Strong believers will show the opposite pattern. And because Americans are frequently exposed to competing claims about the latest scientific evidence, these opposing tendencies will predictably create political polarization — and it will grow over time.

So if scientists (and other experts for that matter) want the public to make informed decisions about complex issues, it’s not enough for us to put out the facts and expect them to speak for themselves. We need to recognize that there is a science of science communication and work with experts in that field to help us find ways to help us communicate more effectively.

One of the first things we have to remember is that communication is not talking.

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Further reading:

Fischoff, B., and D.A. Scheufele. 2013. The science of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  110:14031-14032. doi:

Sunstein, C.R., S. Bobadilla-Suarez, S.C. Lazzaro, T. Sharot.  2016.  How people update beliefs about climate change: good news and bad news.  (September 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2821919 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2821919

Climate change neoskepticism

Paul Stern and colleagues1 use the term “neoskepticism” to describe the view that although climate change is real and although humans are responsible for much of it, the costs of attempting to reduce or mitigate it exceed the benefits.

[N]eoskepticism accepts the existence of [anthropogenic climate change] but advocates against urgent mitigation efforts on various grounds, such as that climate models run “too hot” or are too uncertain to justify anything other than “no-regrets” policies as having net benefits. Mainstream climate scientists are well aware of uncertainty in climate projections. But neoskeptics’ citing of it to justify policy inaction marks a shift of focus in climate debates from the existence of ACC to its import and to response options.

The problem, of course, is that uncertainty is a double-edged sword. It’s possible that the impacts of climate change won’t be as bad as current (mean) projections, but it’s also possible that they will be far worse. Worse yet, the longer we wait to mitigate impacts, the more difficult and expensive it will be to prevent them. In response, they argue both for more attention to decision sciences and to the science of science communication. Both are certainly needed. But they also focus only on part of the science communication that’s needed, the part having to do with facts about costs, benefits, and risks of action or inaction.

As scientists, we pay too little attention to the emotional aspects of persuasion involved in guiding public policy, and here I’m not talking about appeals to “your children and grandchildren” or “our fellow creatures.” I’m talking about the emotions people feel when they think about scientists in particular or experts more generally, for example. Science communication is important even when it isn’t imparting facts or knowledge. In fact, it may be even more important when it’s not imparting facts or knowledge. It may be most important when it’s sharing scientists as caring human beings who can be trusted. Only if we are trusted will anyone listen when we share our insights with them.


1Stern, P.C., J.H. Perkins, R.E. Sparks, and R.A. Knox. 2016. The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism. Science 353:653-654. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf9697

Kudos – Help promoting papers to new audiences

I was catching up on my reading last weekend when I ran across an article in Nature describing Kudos, a site that promises “broaden readership and increase the impact of your research” (https://www.growkudos.com/about/researchers). Here’s a bit more about what they say about themselves:

Kudos is more than a just a networking site, and more than just a publication listing. It is a toolkit for explaining your work in plain language and for enriching it with links to related materials (watch a video about explaining and enriching). Kudos also provides a unique one-stop shop for multiple metrics relating to your publications: page views, citations, full text downloads and altmetrics. When you explain, enrich and share your work through Kudos, we map your actions against these metrics in charts that show you which activities are most effective when it comes to increasing the reach and impact of your work (watch a video about sharing your work).

I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds promising. According to the article in Nature

The site is free for academics because scholarly institutions, societies, publishers and other commercial clients pay for its upkeep. Kudos helps these customers to track and evaluate their researchers (or, in the case of publishers, their authors) and foster a stronger relationship with them, explains Rapple. By encouraging researchers to do outreach, the site also indirectly builds the profile of their institution or their journal, she adds. And Rapple hopes that publishers and institutions can build up valuable intelligence from the Kudos database about the effects of different kinds of outreach. The site has established partnerships with some 65 publishers so far, including well-known firms such as Wiley and Taylor & Francis.

I’m going to try register soon. I’ll keep you posted on what I find.

Science communication and experts

Michael_Gove_at_Policy_Exchange_delivering_his_keynote_speech_'The_Importance_of_Teaching'_(cropped)In early June, Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom. (Image at left By Policy Exchange [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons) He helped lead the effort that lead to the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. He appeared on a Sky News program where he “refused to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union, saying that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.” (https://next.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c) While Gove was speaking about economists, his words have clear implications for scientists. Being expert isn’t enough. Commanding the facts isn’t enough. I’m no expert, but this strikes me as a pretty good example of why the “deficit model” of science communication (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_deficit_model) is wrong.

Writing in EoS, Amy Luers and David Kroodsma have some good advice. Don’t report facts. Join conversations. Here are a few of the key points:

  • Science communicators need to focus on developing strategies to join and initiate conversations that start with people, not science.
  • Credibility is determined more by the communities scientists are associated with than by the papers they publish.
  • Scientists should embrace the fact that online communities enable people to come together and collaborate, and use this to identify new opportunities for coproduction of knowledge that can complement more conventional science communication efforts.