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Editorial: Communicating in an atmosphere hostile to science

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Editorial: Communicating in an atmosphere hostile to science. The Exchange 17(2):2,11–13.

Much of what we’ve been taught about communication is based on a fallacy similar to that which afflicts traditional economics: the notion that our audience is sufficiently rational that they will seek out all the information they need to make a perfectly informed decision, and that they will then make their decision rationally and objectively. Here, “rational” is generally assumed to mean “in the way we expect them to behave based on our preconceptions about the correct response”. The problem, as economists are gradually beginning to acknowledge, is that most audiences are not rational according to this definition. People have prejudices, emotions, and insufficient time or energy remaining after dealing with their routine life stresses for them to be eager to analyze complex arguments as if they were students preparing for a test. Some may be incapable of even understanding our arguments, and not because they’re stupid; understanding some arguments may require advanced training that few possess.

Journalists exacerbate the problem, as Randall Munroe pointedly remarks in his XKCD comic strip about the current oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Darryl Cunningham provides another example related to the furor over whether vaccines cause autism: there’s no evidence they do, and the journal article that proposed a connection has been soundly debunked, but you wouldn’t know this from the press coverage. Unfortunately, when we’re responsible for communicating with the general public, we must often do so through journalists (including TV and radio reporters), and that communication channel creates many problems for us. These include the media’s need to sensationalize issues, but the more serious problems are that so few journalists actually understand the science they’re covering and that journalists are trained to seek balance by providing both sides of a story, even if one of the opposing viewpoints is nonsense in any rational sense.

In such an environment, it can become nearly impossible to communicate successfully with a general audience. Indeed, no one solution will let you succeed in all cases. But by understanding each of the abovementioned problems and seeking ways to solve them, you can greatly increase your chance of success. Here are some suggestions:

Prejudices

Everyone, including scientists, holds certain unchallenged beliefs. These beliefs, whether conscious or not, affect how we think about everything we see and hear. If the beliefs are sufficiently strong, we evaluate all new knowledge based on whether it supports or contradicts those beliefs; information that contradicts those beliefs is often discarded without further consideration. Even our less-strongly-held beliefs affect the extent of our willingness to consider new information fairly. To overcome these barriers to communication, we must first understand that prejudices exist, what they are, and how they cause audience members to prejudge what we’re going to say.

Harnessing the energy of those beliefs is an important step towards helping an audience overcome its prejudices. For example, we can begin any communication by demonstrating our understanding of those beliefs. In doing so, we gain enough willingness to listen that a skillfully communicated message capable of sidestepping those beliefs rather than confronting them directly will let us build on those beliefs, or perhaps even modify them, thereby helping the audience learn something new. The key here is to recognize that communication is not a form of combat or even a debate whose only goal is winning: our goal should not be to crush our audience’s resistance, but rather to help them recognize and consider our message despite their prejudices.

Emotions

Even the most rational person is governed to a greater or lesser extent by their emotions, including anger, fear, and frustration. Given that these emotions exist and that they affect all of us, we cannot simply ignore them and hope that a purely logical argument will suffice. Scientific communicators most often fail when they assume, based on their experience communicating with scientists and engineers, that facts make the most persuasive argument in all cases. That may be true once we can convince an audience to adopt a dispassionate and objective stance towards what we’re trying to say. But we can’t get there without first acknowledging and addressing their emotions.

For example, an audience may often be angry because of something that is not even remotely our fault, or something that may be our employer’s fault. We must find a way to assuage their anger, perhaps through an admission of guilt or fault, through an apology, or by providing tangible evidence that we have done something or will shortly do something to remedy the situation. Fear is another common reaction, often real and legitimate but sometimes created primarily by a lack of understanding. Fear can be decreased by remaining calm, acknowledging the magnitude of the fear, and demonstrating that we have a clear understanding of what must be done to reduce the risk or the impacts if that risk has become actualized. We cannot deny that fear, nor can we eliminate it; all we can hope for is to find a way to help the audience deal with it. Frustration is another problem, particularly if there is a history of the audience lacking agency (i.e., having no way to exert some control over a situation). We must empathize with that frustration, and seek solutions that will ease it, such as giving audience members a chance to express their views and finding ways to accommodate their views in any final consensus. (Simply acknowledging their views is insufficient; we must provide tangible evidence those views have changed our subsequent behavior.)

It should be obvious, but nonetheless requires repetition, that all such approaches must be sincere. Most people have a well-honed ability to detect insincerity, and any perception of insincerity can undermine all subsequent attempts to communicate.

Complex concepts

The most interesting science is complex—often extremely so. This means that even the scientists who study it and who have spent many years attempting to master their subject may not have simple explanations or answers to questions. In some cases, the complexity is irreducible, and the full implications of a situation cannot be communicated in a single “sound bite” suitable for the evening news. This is particularly true in the presence of uncertainty: if you don’t know the answer, it can be difficult to explain this in a way that doesn’t make you look like an idiot (and therefore untrustworthy) for not knowing.

In such cases, the task becomes one of understanding the essential take-home message you must deliver. That message must always be simpler than the longer message you would prefer to deliver. Although you may do considerable injustice to the complexity of a problem by oversimplifying, presenting the core message in a defensible but incomplete manner generally offers an acceptable compromise. Compare the following approaches:

Journalists

Well-trained, competent science journalists certainly exist, even in mass-media channels, and they’re our best hope for getting out the right message. But they’re in the minority. The majority who cover science, particularly on television, don’t understand science and don’t understand that not all viewpoints are equally credible and worthy of airtime. In such cases, we face the problem of seeing uninformed, non-credible speakers given as much air time as the informed, credible speakers who have the information that must reach the public. We also face the problem of journalists who present the wrong information because they were overwhelmed by too much information and missed the key message. Whenever we must rely on the media to spread our message, we must therefore use the same tools our opponents use if we hope to have our message heard and accepted:

The goal of communication with typical journalists is to establish enough of a human connection that they will trust you and really listen to what you have to say. You can then give them a message they can repeat quickly and simply. Do this better than “the opposing viewpoint” and your message will be prioritized.

Succeeding despite these obstacles

Each of these suggestions requires a profound understanding of how the underlying obstacles affect the audience’s willingness to listen and absorb your message, and accepting that your understanding must change from situation to situation. There’s no shortcut; each time, you’ll have to think through the full complexity of the communications context from the audience’s perspective. Getting them to listen with minds at least partially open is the indispensable first half of the battle. Telling them the take-home sound bite, simplified until the compromises may make you wince, is the equally crucial second half. If they’re still listening, you’ve gained enough time to explore the issue in more depth, fleshing out the message and finding ways to keep them listening respectfully while you do.

If you’ve participated in any success stories, why not share them with readers of this newsletter?


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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