Communicating Science Communication to Scientists

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how and where we apply science communication. We use it when connecting with the lay public, and with decision-makers and journalists. It’s a way of opening a window into complex scientific concepts and ideas and making those concepts and ideas exciting for a broader audience than just the researcher and their research colleagues.

But when we’re talking to scientists, do we need to apply the principles of science communication (start with specifics then get into generalities, use plain language, avoid text-heavy presentations, draw on storytelling approaches)? Would scientists learn better if things were done the way they’ve always done them – by reading and critiquing published papers, by giving presentations that are accessible only to other scientists, by writing our own papers that are sometimes dense and difficult for a non-scientist to read?

I suspect that the latter is the case, mostly because I’ve used science communication techniques with scientists and been told my science wasn’t complex enough because everyone could understand what I was talking about (right down to the administrative assistant). I’ve also been warned not to “dumb things down” when working with colleagues on an article for an environmental science magazine. These colleagues had no sense of science communication and were more interested in making sure their work was sufficiently complex rather than sufficiently accessible.

Looked at this way, it seems that scientists would better understand science communication concepts if they were presented the same way they receive work from their scientific colleagues: peer-reviewed literature, conference presentations and posters, etc.

This is where the science of science communication comes in. In case you didn’t know, there are journals out there that publish pieces on the science of scicomm – journals like Canadian Science Publishing’s FACETS Journal, for example, has a scicomm section. One of their 2018 papers was about the Twitter reach of individual scientists – were they only reaching other scientists, or were they connecting with policy-makers and journalists? The authors of the study found that it depended on how many followers the scientist had on Twitter: the more followers (threshold ~1000), the more likely that their tweets would connect with policy-makers and journalists.

Tweeting, therefore, has the potential to disseminate scientific information widely after initial efforts to gain followers. These results should encourage scientists to invest in building a social media presence for scientific outreach.

Note that this is a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, that applied statistics using both R and ANOVA. The results are robust, peer-reviewed, and relevant to scientists wishing to reach a broader audience.

There is also the journal Science Communication. Their latest issue is focused on “Communication and Persuasion on Energy, Environment, and Climate,” and includes papers on using humour to get your message across, how to connect with Christians, the impact of the source of information on climate change on the effectiveness of climate change communication, and more.

I suspect that scientists interested in science communication might not only learn more by focusing on the peer-reviewed literature, but might also take it more seriously because it *has* been peer-reviewed. Scientists have a lot of literature to keep in touch with in their research field alone, so the key, then, is to get these papers in front of them so that they can understand the quantitative importance of science communication.

The Journal of Science Communication, for example, has a series of articles posted right now about storytelling in science. Now if you suggested a researcher use storytelling to connect with the lay public, they would likely argue that their work isn’t suitable for storytelling and is much more complex than that, and that storytelling is a way of “dumbing down” research.

If they had a chance to read these papers, however, which again are peer-reviewed and use quantitative measures to examine the utility of storytelling, scientists might change their minds about it. Particularly this article: Who doesn’t love a good story? — What neuroscience tells about how we respond to narratives

So what does science tell us about how stories work on us? A variety of studies have found that good narratives, or framing information in stories, has been shown to:

  • Increase people’s likelihood of remembering information [Graesser et al., 1980],
  • Reduce counter-arguing [Green and Brock, 2000],
  • Be much more convincing than just data [Niemand, 2018],
  • Increase engagement, when communicating science to non-expert audiences [Dahlstrom, 2014].

If a scientist is aware of these findings, they may be more inclined to follow the storytelling route than a scientist who has no clue about these findings.

I think that, to engage scientists in science communication, we have to first teach them using a scientific rather than a science communication approach. Once they have a basic understanding of the benefits of science communication based on the science of science communication literature, then training can switch into a science communication approach because they’ll know what you’re talking about (use of storytelling, plain language, etc.).

For more resources to teach the science of science communication, see the PLOS Science Communication Blog, the LSE Impact Blog, and science and policy at the AGU’s Bridge Blog.

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