When discussing scientists’ engagement with the media and public, trotting out obsolete ideas is neither helpful nor useful

Jul 12 2009 Published by under public communication & engagement

I'm not an expert on public understanding of science or science communication; however, I've certainly read enough to know that some of the statements constantly being rehashed are not only out of date, but have been repeatedly discredited through peer-reviewed empirical research.

(to be fair - I, too, trotted out some of these ideas before some of this research was pointed out to me *).

Myth 1: Scientists don't want to talk to the public

They do. For example, in a decent sized (n=1354) international study of epidemiologists and stem-cell researchers, 60-70% have spoken with the media about their work in the past 3 years [1].

Myth 2: Lack of knowledge of scientific facts is why the public doesn't support some scientific endeavors

This just doesn't hold water in very large surveys done internationally over the past 20-30 years.  There are lots of reasons why people don't support, for example, GMOs or stem-cell research that have nothing to do with being able to correctly answer factual science questions. (see Allum and co-author's work using GSS data in the US and equivalent in other countries - [6] is an example)

Myth 3: There's nowhere to go for help and scientists are completely on their own in communicating with the public

There are entire fields of science communicators, technical writers, and science journalists - seriously. We don't need to take productive bench scientists and keep them from doing science so that they can spend a ton of time learning how to communicate with the public. Work with someone who is a professional science communicator. If you are a scientist and you'd like to communicate with the public - fine. Take a workshop from AAAS. Get your professional society to host a workshop at the next annual meeting. Or, collaborate with your local science communication professional. Practice by blogging.

Myth 4: The Golden Era

see Nisbet.

Myth 5: The only education that matters is k-12

Lifelong learning has to be stressed in school. Seriously.  Just think about how much science has changed since you were in k-12.  I went to a small rural school - we still learned about "races". We also learned about the 9 planets 😉

Myth 6: That science communication is a linear path, in which it is translated and dumbed down and transmitted to the public. (the "dominant view")[2]

I'll leave this for [2] and [5].

BTW - Turns out that scientists read popularizations [3,4], too.

* You might ask: hey, aren't you supposed to be studying for your comps which are just a few days away?  To which I would respond: CRAP! I know!

[1]Peters, H. P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigne, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., et al. (2008). SCIENCE COMMUNICATION: Interactions with the mass media. Science, 321(5886), 204-205. doi:10.1126/science.1157780

[2]Hilgartner, S. (1990). The dominant view of popularization: Conceptual problems, political uses. Social Studies of Science, 20(3), 519-539.

[3]Paul, D. (2004). Spreading chaos: The role of popularizations in the diffusion of scientific ideas. Written Communication, 21(1), 32-68.

[4]Lewenstein, B. V. (1995). From fax to facts: Communication in the cold fusion saga. Social Studies of Science, 25(3), 403-436. doi:10.1177/030631295025003001

[5]Myers, G. (2003). Discourse studies of scientific popularization: Questioning the boundaries. Discourse Studies, 5(2), 265-279.

[6]Allum, N., Sturgis, P., Tabourazi, D., & Brunton-Smith, I. (2008). Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: A meta-analysis. Public Understanding of Science, 17(1), 35-54.

14 responses so far

  • Christina Pikas says:

    myth 2 is "the deficit model"
    (easier to comment than to edit post)

  • Casz says:

    Gotta say that myth 5 is the one that really resonates with me. Not only the stuff that's changed since school but what about work? I know this is outside the purview of Sciblogs but most successful workers have background knowledge of their jobs - whether it's digging with a shovel or running a machine. It's time to recognize learning should be life long.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Thanks - in fact - Wynne, one of the most important researchers in public understanding of science, did his studies on sheep farmers. They have a deep understanding of animal husbandry and the scientists who were trying to convince them to do something different really didn't understand the necessities of location and how sheep farming works.
    There's both learning about the job, or your hobby, or your interest, or medical conditions of family members -which can be very scientific - and there's also lifelong learning about science in general as a matter of curiosity, etc.

  • Luke says:

    One of the best studies I've seen about how the active role of the popular press in influencing scientific inquiry and patterns of citation is this very cool natural experiment made possible by an NYT strike:
    "To test the hypothesis that researchers are more likely to cite papers that have been publicized in the popular press, we compared the number of references in the Science Citation Index to articles in the New England Journal of Medicine that were covered by The New York Times with the number of references to similar articles that were not covered by the Times. We also performed the comparison during a three-month period when the Times was on strike but continued to prepare an "edition of record" that was not distributed; doing so enabled us to address the possibility that coverage in the Times was simply a marker of the most important articles, which would therefore be cited more frequently, even without coverage in the popular press."

    Finally someone not pulling shit out of their ass about "science communication"!!!

  • gillt says:

    I recommend the Mooney/Zimmer bloggingheads from last week. They touch on myth two. I think Zimmer offers a compelling argument, by way of the George Will Global Warming fiasco, that even highly educated people often fail with a basic understanding of the science they're attempting to criticize. I haven't read your footnote so I could be way off here.

  • MyaR says:

    Thanks for this. I'm especially glad to see Myth 4 mentioned, which I've been thinking about for quite some time. At best, the "Golden Era" public understanding of science was naive. (See "where's my flying car?")

  • TTT says:

    I don't see how anyone could seriously believe in a past American "Golden Age" of mass science literacy. The general public has never been particularly science-savvy, but as a rule, when it comes to knowledge EVERYTHING in the past was worse than the present, just because less was actually known and the tools for communication and teaching were more primitive than today.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    That might be true (that well educated people aren't necessarily well educated/informed in science), but that wasn't my point, precisely. What I'm saying is that you might be well informed about the science of stem cells and even appreciate the potential advances from their use/research on them, but *still* have ethical issues (regardless of religious affiliation) regarding their sourcing, for example. The old science adviser to the secretary of state was like: Europeans were anti GMO's because they are stupid (here, I paraphrase). This totally dismisses some valid ecological concerns - in some cases.
    Also, while I'm commenting - bullet theory of communication - that's another myth. Passive audiences that you just have to target/hit with your fabu science and they'll get it.

  • gillt says:

    That's a good point, but calling someone ignorant and calling a person stupid are two different things. For example, creationists are not stupid, but they are ignorant of the science, sometimes willfully so.

  • Hi Christina,
    Thanks for starting this excellent discussion and keep up the great work in drawing attention to the relevant research in the area.
    One point where I would disagree slightly is that it is important for scientists to understand these principles from the field of communication research and for some scientists to be trained in effective science communication (which includes not just skills but also the ethics and normative dimensions of engagement). This doesn't mean all scientists, but there is room for a division of labor. See how we describe this towards the end of a 2007 article at The Scientist magazine.

  • Onkel Bob says:

    Lifelong learning has to be stressed in school.
    I taught for Osher's Lifelong Learning Institute and it was a wonderful experience. Teaching mostly retired people, they were a great audience. However, they closed the local chapter due to money concerns. Furthermore, while many were well educated, disabusing them of certain beliefs was very difficult. (Yes indeed, Christians invaded Rome - they may have been Arians, but they were not all pagans.)
    As for myth #2 & #6, many science communications are the game of telephone with resulting distortions. As for bench scientists having time or resources available well that's myth #7. The frau is a Developmental Biologist at a prestigious university, and she - nor any of her colleagues at equally prestigious universities have such such freedom. They struggle for grants, compete of journal space, and need to run a lab with ever dwindling resources. It's the economy stupid, and fellowships and grants are drying up fast. You must pay that graduate student or post doc something, and chasing funds is a full-time job. It is telling that the big time bloggers are at small liberal arts schools with teaching as their main task. The frau teaches too (both graduate and medical students) and that cuts deeply into her time.
    No disrespect but trotting out naive Polly Ann fantasies with little basis in reality is not helpful either. All of these "myths" you present may be true, but they ignore the elephant in the room, the endless cycle of grant writing and other fiscal demands on scientists.

  • Skeptigirl says:

    Re Myth #2 (framed differently): All problems communicating science are not due to a 'knowledge deficit'.
    As you have said, ethical/moral objections to scientific progress are not all a problem of scientific illiteracy. True these are reasons people may object to scientific endeavors. But there's more to the myth that lacking facts is the reason for objecting to scientific endeavors. That is, people discount facts that don't confirm their beliefs. It's often not a purely ethical/moral objection, but also a tendency to believe 'facts' which support one's position and discount 'facts' that don't.
    Knowledge deficits are often a matter of filtering facts rather than not being exposed to the facts. We need to address the filtering processes of the human brain if we hope to overcome the knowledge deficits caused by that filtering.

  • Peter Beattie says:

    » gillt:
    even highly educated people often fail with a basic understanding of the science they're attempting to criticize
    As I have said elsewhere, the root problem with scientific illiteracy is of course not with knowledge of facts or lack thereof. Most people are stuck intellectually in a world of one or two hundred years ago, when it was still somewhat okay to rest theories and hypotheses on confirming evidence alone. (Cf. Freund and Adler etc.) But since then, the consensus about what constitutes good thinking in science (what experts call 'philosophy of science' ;>) has moved on. A couple of miles, actually. Nowadays, scientifically respectable thinking is supposed to revolve around the idea of trying to find out where exactly your own thinking goes wrong and to devise experiments to ferret out possible errors. That's what's at the heart of the scientific enterprise, and that's what the public and especially the media have some serious catching up to do about.