The Sciences

Do scientists have to sell their souls to be successful at public communication?

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJan 27, 2011 10:34 PM

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This is a guest post composed as part of the NSF Science: Becoming the Messenger workshop, Lawrence KS January 27, 2011

Scientists need to communicate with the public, and the workshop I’m at right now is focused on helping them do that. One of the main concerns that keeps coming up is whether scientists have to “sell their souls” in order to engage the public’s attention. Scientists are worried about sacrificing content and details for entertainment. We’ve heard about how we ought to keep our talking points simple and focused, and how we ought to “frame” our content to speak to people’s interests. Examples have included framing science content in terms of economic or national security interests. There’s been much interest, but some skepticism. Why are scientists skeptical about using effective communication techniques? A group at Kansas State University (myself included) have been wondering about that question. The results from surveys and interviews from the Research Communications Ethics Project suggest that scientists know that these techniques are effective, especially at garnering interest, but resist because of ethical concerns. In particular, we think one of the reasons scientists resist is that they want not to tell people what to believe, but think it is more ethically appropriate to give people data and decide what to think on their own. But we know from psychological research that people (scientists included!) use data only in a context—it is only when put into a context that provides background information, interpretive metaphors, and values that information is actually used by people. If scientists want to help people use science, they need to give them information in ways it can be used. So let’s get out and try to engage, motivate, and convince honestly. We should resist the worst tools that truly manipulate, but not be afraid of giving our opinions, and of providing our results in ways that let people use them. -Scott Tanona

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