Communicating Science to the Public: The Why and How
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
As advancements in research and technology continue, the non-scientific community relies frequently on scientists to aid them in distinguishing and clarifying the authenticity of resources presented in the media. The problem that scientists often encounter while communicating with the non-scientific community is that they do not use common English also known as layman’s terms. This leads to the question of: Are scientists trained to effectively communicate science to the public?
Scientists often disseminate their findings through traditional routes (abstracts, journal papers, etc.) but lack formal training in communicating to the non-scientific community. Furthermore, many of us can relate to the experience of a professor teaching a course’s material using extensive jargon. Use of complex vocabulary is further exacerbated by universities offering elective- rather than core-courses dedicated to the practice of communicating science using layman’s terms (1). This is contradictory since all students are required to take courses (i.e., seminars, etc.) to practice communicating science to their peers but is taught to be used with complex vocabulary. Thus, researchers suggest that science communication skills, when taught earlier in one’s training, could help bridge the gap of misinformation when communicating with the non-scientific community (1).
Another issue in science communication is the traditional-media (i.e., newspaper, radio, magazines and television) serving as a mediator between scientists and the non-scientific community by presenting information (2). Not to say that journalists are unable to understand research studies but they interpret, shape, filter and deliver information differently than scientists. Researchers also point out that new-media (i.e., websites, blogs, podcasts and social apps/websites) have yet added an additional hurdle to the soundness of science communication (3). Now more than ever, individuals and organizations have the ability to rapidly and freely communicate information that is not necessarily backed up by credible sources. This in turn gives space for misinterpretations or loss of context to occur and lead the non-scientific community into having perceptions and (or) opinions of distrust towards a particular scientific finding. Some examples of distrust and controversies can be found in the commonly known research topics of climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccines, and more (4). However, it is important to disclose that the dilemma of presenting information by the media (new and traditional) is based-off the deficit model. This particular model centralizes itself on how the non-scientific community relies on three assumptions. The first being that they pay attention only to sources of information that reinforce their beliefs. The second is on how leaders of power (i.e., religious, political) may twist scientific data in their favor. The third and final assumption that the model makes is that human beings have a tendency to take shortcuts in order to understand information and (or) solve a problem at the expense of accuracy (5,6). Therefore, the deficit model underestimates the non-scientific community's ability to understand science and it diminishes the collaboration that should exist between scientists and the media to communicate science accurately.
Science communicators such as Molly Bloom, co-founder and co-host of “Brains On”, argues that the new- and traditional-media have opened new ways of accessing our information and shifted the way we learn as a society. She also advocates for science communication through the “Brains On” podcast that is specifically designed to communicate science in layman’s terms for both children and adults. We were fortunate enough to get a short interview with her, where she stated some amazing pieces of advice and insights on how to communicate science:
1. Science communication means we are all here to learn.
We need to remind ourselves that it is alright to ask questions in order to learn. This is because there is a lot of information that we did not learn back in school or in college. In fact, Molly mentions that through Brains On, she and her co-workers are always learning new things for every episode.
She admits that:
“Adults often forget to think hard about things like children usually do to actually understand how things work”.
2. Scientists are the key in bridging the gap between science and the non-scientific community.
Scientists often need to take a step back and remind themselves why they chose what they currently study and how it fills them with joy. This aids them when communicating something difficult and demonstrating that they are capable of getting into that frame of mind that they are not preparing to write for a grant or talking to their colleagues.
3. Start by having an open mind when communicating science.
When Molly and her co-workers work on a podcast episode, they do not assume too much knowledge about anything. They often start the process with not knowing the answer to a child’s question and when they do then they need to learn how to teach it to others. She also mentions that she has found that the process of learning is in fact, very similar between children and adults.
From left to right: Marc Sanchez, Molly Bloom & Sanden Totten.
4. Communicate your research in science with passion
We often forget that scientists have a lot of passion in order to devote themselves to many years of studying a particular topic. If the public is able to see and hear the amount of work and passion that goes into science it brings us together.
5. Show your work when explaining your research in science.
Start by explaining the methods and steps you and others did in order to get to a specific result or piece of knowledge. By showing the steps of how you got to your answer or results it provides the public with transparency. Then people are able to see that you did not make something up.
Given these points of argument, the scientific community needs to become more at ease with knowing that they are indeed capable of changing how information is presented in the media. Scientists' first step towards this is to disrupt the cycle of assuming that because research is scientifically published that its findings can speak for itself. From there, scientists can take a more active role in bridging the gap between science and both the non-scientific community and media by using the layman’s terms as knowledge becomes more complex .
For more information on Brains On, please visit:
Brownell, S., Price, J.V. and Steiman, L. (2013). Science Communication to the General Public: Why We Need to Teach Undergraduate and Graduate Students this Skill as Part of Their Formal Scientific Training. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ.12(1): E6-E10.
Del Vicario, M., Bessib, A. Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, H.E., and Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 113(3): 554-559.
McKeever, B.W., McKeever, R., Holton, A.E., and Li, J.Y. (2016). Silent majority: Childhood vaccinations and antecedents to communicative action. Mass Communication and Society. 19(4): 1-23.
Mikulak A. (2011). Mismatches between 'scientific' and 'non-scientific' ways of knowing and their contributions to public understanding of science. Integr Psychol Behav Sci. 45(2):201-215. doi: 10.1007/s12124-011-9157-8.
Nisbet, M.C. and Mooney, C. (2007). Science and Society. Framing Science. Science. 316(5821):56. doi: 10.1126/science.1142030.
Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2007). The Future of Public Engagement. The Scientist. 21, 39–44