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Spring 2014 Vol. 13 Number 2

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Science Communication Initiatives


Communicating science effectively can be a challenge, but luckily new research is emerging that can help. To give researchers, communicators, and others a chance to hear about some of the latest findings on the subject, the National Academy of Sciences held its second Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication last fall -- a gathering that once again filled the NAS auditorium to capacity. A live video webcast made the colloquium accessible to thousands who could not attend in person, and there were 13,000 tweets about the meeting around the world, with a potential reach of 5 million people.

Among the themes that surfaced was that expertise alone is not enough to establish a communicator's credibility; trust is needed as well. Two qualities that make a communicator trusted are competence and warmth, explained NAS member Susan T. Fiske, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who presented research on how the public perceives different groups and professions in terms of those two characteristics. Scientists typically do well on half of this equation: The public tends to view scientists as competent, but it also finds them cold. Fortunately, many scientists are also teachers, a profession that, according to Fiske's research, tends to be perceived as warmer, which points to the approach and skill set they should draw upon when communicating with the public. Focusing on informing and educating rather than persuading builds trust.

Two people at the Academies make it their job to investigate and support efforts to communicate about two thorny science issues: evolution and climate change. While not controversial scientifically, these subjects often become contentious when they enter the realms of politics and public opinion.

Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communication at the National Research Council, works to confront challenges to teaching evolution in the nation's science classrooms -- a task that can seem never-ending. "Someone once said this topic is like trying to sink a rubber duck: Just when you think you've got the problem solved, it pops up somewhere else," quips Labov. Still, he predicts that progress may be made as the Next Generation Science Standards, which include evolution, are implemented in many states. Also likely to drive progress are the recently restructured Advanced Placement biology courses, which are based on recommendations from a 2002 National Research Council report and which emphasize evolution as a fundamental concept of modern biology to a much greater extent than the courses did previously. When challenges do arise, Labov works directly with state and local organizations that are trying to keep evolution in science classes and helps mobilize Academy members to write letters and engage with such organizations as well.

Is it possible to convince someone who is skeptical about evolution? When Labov discusses the subject with college students, he explains the difference between belief systems and scientific approaches – a distinction many students have never heard before. "Science is the search for natural explanations to natural phenomena, and therefore the supernatural is beyond the reach of science. Science has nothing to say about whether a supernatural being exists," says Labov. Many religions have been able to separate or reconcile faith and science, and some scientists are deeply religious. While it may not be possible to change the mind of a biblical literalist, many people who are uncertain may be convinced if the topic is discussed this way, according to Labov.

The other Academies staffer is Martin Storksdieck, who until this year directed the Climate Change Education Roundtable. The roundtable was established in 2009 to discuss the challenges to educating students and the public about climate science and climate change, and ways to overcome those difficulties.

Knowing where your audience is coming from is important, according to Storksdieck, who points out the Six Americas study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, which found that Americans' views of climate change fall into six main categories, ranging from alarmed to dismissive. "People in the middle say, 'I'm open to listening to you. Tell me why I should believe this is really a problem. Show me the evidence.'" More skeptical people, he says, come at it with the question, "Why should I trust you?" "It's really important to know what questions people have. Otherwise what we do is shower people with information that they're not receptive to taking in or that doesn't answer any questions they have in the first place."

Research also suggests that it's effective to explain the evidence for climate change separately from discussions of policy solutions, says Storksdieck. Some who are skeptical "believe that if they were to acknowledge the scientific foundation, they would automatically buy into a set of policy prescriptions they may not like, such as measures to limit emissions." This belief makes them reluctant to accept the evidence. It's important to make clear that whether and how to address climate change is a separate issue from whether climate change is happening. "You need to dissociate those two," Storksdieck says. "You need to let people know that there are many ways in which you can address or not address it, that there are many choices once you see what the problem is."

-- Sara Frueh

Videos of presentations at the Science of Science Communication II colloquium can be viewed online.

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