Talk the talk: How to communicate science


By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

Three decades ago, the National Academy of Sciences formally reported on climate change to President Jimmy Carter.

Nearly 20 years earlier, in February 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted in a special message to Congress, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

At a spring 2014 SciComm Exchange hosted by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, renowned science journalist Cornelia Dean observed, “It’s kind of sad to look back and think about what kind of position we would be in (if we had acted) back in the Carter Administration.”

Lamenting the lack of action on the calamity of climate change, Dean said part of the problem stemmed from the scientific community’s emphasis on uncertainty rather than what was certain. She said, “Too many people have not bought into the idea that human activity is threatening life, as we know it on earth. There is a well-financed disinformation campaign.”

And, Dean added, “I blame the research community for this. Not totally, but they have contributed.”

Researchers typically do not say, here is a finding and this is what it means. Instead, Dean said, researchers will say, “Here is a finding and it opens the door to all kinds of new questions to ask.”

Explaining scientific uncertainty, particularly in the context of climate change, poses even greater difficulties. Dean noted that National Academy of Sciences report conclusions almost always say the same thing — we need more money for research, not this issue needs to be addressed.

Dean said, “Scientists and engineers can’t get ahead of their data.”

Communication, she said, is only part of the answer. People respond to information to the degree that it aligns with what they already know. People also listen to those they consider opinion leaders. And, people want to hold positions that are congruent with the group they belong to or aspire to be in.

Dean said it was important to take these concepts into consideration when presenting information on climate change, noting, “You need to pay much more attention to stakeholders, how this issue is going to affect them. Pay more attention to what is important to your audience.”

Consequently, researchers must figure out what their audience already knows and believes, and address a broader range of people. Reaching out to colleagues in professional journals is not enough — make a clear statement “in a place where the rest of the world is going to see it,” said Dean.

Reading list

  • Baron, Nancy (2010). Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making your Science Matter. Island Press. This book explains the various methods of communication utilized by scientists, journalists, and policy makers and how to overcome the problems that arise from these differences.
  • Bishop, Jerry (1997). Communicating Science to the Public. CBE Views 20(3).
  • Carrada, Giovanni (2006). Communicating Science: A Scientist’s Survival Kit. European Commission.
  • Dean, Cornelia (2009). Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Harvard University PressAuthor advices on how to carry out an open and direct dialogue between scientists, journalists, and the public.
  • Hayes, Richard and Dan Grossman (2006). A Scientist’s Guide to Talking With the Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rutgers University Press.
  • Meredith, Dennis (2010). Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work. Oxford University Press. A guide for communicating the research of scientists, engineers, and physicians.
  • Olson, Randy (2009). Don’t be Such a Scientist. Island Press. An account outlining how to make science more entertaining to the public.
  • Ward, Bud (2008). Communicating on Climate Change: an Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators. Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. This book seeks to alleviate the public resistance to climate change by suggesting new modes of communicating the issues.

Web page resources

(Image credit)


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