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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2

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The Science of Communicating ScienceParticipants at a 2012 symposium on the science of communicating science, photos by Aaron Clamage

Scientists can run into difficulty communicating with the public about their work, whether it's explaining the scientific evidence for climate change or conveying what "theory" in evolutionary theory really means. But in figuring out how to improve their outreach to the public, scientists might find it helpful to first listen to other scientists -- specifically, to social and cognitive researchers who have been studying how people understand and come to accept or decide to ignore the information they hear.

That was the message of a 2012 Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium that drew 450 participants -- both researchers and communications practitioners -- and thousands of webcast viewers. Panels and presentations covered topics ranging from fields of science where future communication is likely to be challenging -- such as nanotechnology and geoengineering -- to the impact of new media technologies on science communication.

Participants at a 2012 symposium on the science of communicating science, photos by Aaron ClamageA recurrent theme was that communicating effectively about science does not mean simply delivering information and facts -- a common but misguided assumption scientists often make, said Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan: "We think that if we tell them what we know, they'll change what they do." But attempts to educate the public and policymakers about science often fail, he said, in large part because scientists often don't know their audience very well.

One of the challenges is the constant battle for peoples' attention, Lupia said. To win this battle, we have to speak to their core fears, values, and aspirations; what nonscientific audiences want is not a message that's been "dumbed down" but one that's close to their own lives. Making the message concrete and immediate is important, he added. "If you lead with abstractions, you'll lose your audience."

Participants at a 2012 symposium on the science of communicating science, photos by Aaron ClamageThe colloquium also included a historic gathering of four presidential science advisers, who discussed some of the communications challenges they've faced while in office. And embedded in the colloquium was the annual Sackler Lecture, delivered by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

The idea that doling out facts and appealing to reason isn't enough surfaced again and again. The last panel of the colloquium explored bold proposals for science communication. Valerie Reyna of Cornell University proposed that scientists focus on helping people develop "valid scientific intuitions, where they have a feel for the information and intuitions about what might be true beyond the limited number of facts that they learn." Because people don't tend to remember and act on facts, scientists need to extract and convey the "gist" of what they're saying -- the bottom-line, meaningful message -- if they want to compete with the coherent, compelling stories often told by those on the anti-science side of issues, she said.

Other bold proposals included harnessing the talent of Hollywood to make science education for kids more engaging -- an idea that builds upon the NAS Science & Entertainment Exchange -- and creating a National Partnership for Climate Communication.

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, closed the colloquium by saying there's a message about the importance of science communication in the fact that so many people stayed for two days to discuss it. "Never in my adult life has the tension level between science and the rest of the society been as great as it is now," Leshner said. "And it's up to us -- we the scientists and we the science communicators -- to figure out how to balance our relationship between science and the rest of society."

The conference organizers are preparing a collection of papers based on the colloquium to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The archived video webcast of the colloquium presentations can be found at Another conference is planned for fall 2013. -- Sara Frueh

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences