7 Things All Scientists Should Know About Communicating with the Public

Most scientists know that effective science communication is a crucial part of their job.  Whether you are speaking at a conference, teaching a class, applying for a grant, or having a daily conversation with someone outside your field, lack of effective science communication can lead to mistrust of science/scientists or misconceptions.  Over the next few months, I’ll be guiding scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts on how to successfully talk about science to the public. To start this series, today I’ll introduce the top seven things all scientists should know when communicating to the public.  In following posts, I’ll be expanding upon each of these topics and show you how you can integrate this knowledge into your daily life as a science communicator.

  • Data doesn’t change opinions

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When you have a strong science background, you know the importance of data.  Data=facts=truth.  Data is indisputable. Most scientists would agree that new data adds to their knowledge base and can change previously held assumptions. The public however does not react the same way.  Data is un-relatable to a general audience.  Instead…

  • Tell a story

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People don’t respond to data the way they do to stories.  Why?  Story telling is an inherent aspect of humanity.  Because of our desire to create meaning and order out of patterns, humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time.  If you tell your audience a story, they are much more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

  • Don’t isolate your audience

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It’s frustrating to see all of the pseudoscience prevalent in modern society.  Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, the Flat Earth Society (yes really, these people exist).  Why do people fall so easily for pseudoscience?  It can be easy for scientists or science enthusiasts to mock, attack, or belittle these people.  Doing so however is not going to get your audience to change their views or see the established truths.

  • Science and politics: forever intertwined

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Climate change and evolution: two examples of how science can be polarizing.  Suddenly it seems like climate change is an important issue to democrats, while republicans doubt its authenticity.  Evolution has always been a moral issue as it counters some Christians’ beliefs about creation and the Bible. If you’re going to be an effective science communicator, the first thing you have to accept is that science will always be politicized.

  • “Tell me what I already believe”

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When someone believes something, most will want to continue believing it.  It takes work to seek knowledge that goes against what you believe and change your view points.  A lot of people are also just plain stubborn.  When you’re talking science to the general public, they are immediately going to judge you based on whether your information conforms to their previously held beliefs.

  • Trust is key

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A big barrier for scientists is trust.  If your audience can’t trust you, they aren’t going to listen to you.  This has become especially important today in the wave of pseudoscience surrounding GMOs, climate change, alternative medicine, and gluten.  In order to open lines of communication, you have to start with building trust.

  • Know your audience

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Scientists talk to each other often at lab meetings, conferences, or in social situations.  It’s easy to converse with someone when you both have the same level of knowledge in a given field.  When you’re talking to a member of the general public, you need to know the needs and expectations of your audience.  Consider what they already know, and what they need to know.  This can be a hard balance.

Communicating science with the general public is no easy feat.  There are many challenges scientists/science enthusiasts must overcome.  I highlighted above seven important things to know about communicating science to the general public.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll expand on each of these topics and show you how you can better create a healthy relationship between science and society.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  I’d love to hear from you: What questions or concerns do you have as a science communicator?

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