By: John C. Besley, Michigan State University; Anthony Dudo, University of Texas at Austin, and Shupei Yuan, Northern Illinois University

Communication

Most scientists say they got into science to make the world a better place and recognize this means sharing what they learn with a range of other people. But deciding to engage also means deciding what to communicate, and it’s at this stage that things get complicated.

Scientists’ most important communication decision may be figuring out their goals. Do they want to help shape local, state or national policy discussions? Do they want to influence individual behavior, such as diet choices, medical decisions or career paths?

Big-picture goal choice is, however, relatively simple, as it likely originates from scientists’ research, resources and personal preferences.

As public engagement researchers, we suggest the quality of science communication actually hinges on a second set of decisions. Scientists need to figure out what specific, immediate objectives they want to achieve through their communication efforts.

In our view, objectives are a bit tricky because they’re often left unstated and defy easy metaphors. In planning a dinner, they’re not the specific dishes you choose (we’d call those “tactics” or “activities”) and they’re not the goal of a satisfying meal. Instead, you set objectives in the planning phase when decisions are made to start with something savory and light, move on to something satisfying, and finish with something sweet and fun.

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Alan Alda on Communicating Science

Our guest on this episode of the ECS Podcast is Alan Alda. You might know him from the 1970s and 80s because of the TV show MASH or in the last few years from appearing on The Blacklist, The Big C, or as Uncle Pete on the show Horace and Pete.

He hosted the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers for 13 years. Alda is a film and TV director, screenwriter, and author; as well as a six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner.

He is also the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, the goal of which is to help scientists learn to communicate more effectively with the public. His latest book is: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

Alan Alda talked to Rob Gerth, ECS’s director of marketing and communications.

Listen to the podcast and download this episode and others for free on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Podbean, or our RSS Feed. You can also find us on Stitcher and Acast.

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By: Rose Hendricks, University of California, San Diego

We humans have collectively accumulated a lot of science knowledge. We’ve developed vaccines that can eradicate some of the most devastating diseases. We’ve engineered bridges and cities and the internet. We’ve created massive metal vehicles that rise tens of thousands of feet and then safely set down on the other side of the globe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, we’ve discovered is melting). While this shared knowledge is impressive, it’s not distributed evenly. Not even close. There are too many important issues that science has reached a consensus on that the public has not.

Scientists and the media need to communicate more science and communicate it better. Good communication ensures that scientific progress benefits society, bolsters democracy, weakens the potency of fake news and misinformation and fulfills researchers’ responsibility to engage with the public. Such beliefs have motivated training programs, workshops and a research agenda from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on learning more about science communication. A resounding question remains for science communicators: What can we do better?

A common intuition is that the main goal of science communication is to present facts; once people encounter those facts, they will think and behave accordingly. The National Academies’ recent report refers to this as the “deficit model.”

But in reality, just knowing facts doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one’s opinions and behaviors will be consistent with them. For example, many people “know” that recycling is beneficial but still throw plastic bottles in the trash. Or they read an online article by a scientist about the necessity of vaccines, but leave comments expressing outrage that doctors are trying to further a pro-vaccine agenda. Convincing people that scientific evidence has merit and should guide behavior may be the greatest science communication challenge, particularly in our “post-truth” era.

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By: Andrew Maynard, Arizona State University and Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Scientific communicationTruth seems to be an increasingly flexible concept in politics. At least that’s the impression the Oxford English Dictionary gave recently, as it declared “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. What happens when decisions are based on misleading or blatantly wrong information? The answer is quite simple – our airplanes would be less safe, our medical treatments less effective, our economy less competitive globally, and on and on.

Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.

Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.

As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.

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Flame ChallengeActor, writer, and science advocate Alan Alda recently launched the sixth Flame Challenge science education contest.

Since 2011, Alda has presented scientists with questions asked by kids in an effort to bridge a communication gap and enhance overall scientific communication to those not in the field. After sorting through hundreds of questions proposed by kids, Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has announced that it will be asking scientists from around the world, “What is energy?”

“As far as I know, nothing happens without energy,” Alda says. “Night and day, we’re surrounded by it, moved by it — we live and breathe by it. But what is it?”

The Flame Challenge will be judged by 11-year-olds from around the world, challenging the scientists submitting answer to easily communicate these complex concepts.

“I hope scientists from every discipline will have a go at answering this fundamental question about energy. Eleven-year-olds all over the world are waiting to hear the explanation,” Alda says. “The kids — and our sponsors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society — all invite scientists to see if they can explain this complex aspect of nature clearly and vividly. Give it your best shot because, don’t forget, the kids themselves are the judges.”

Scientists and educators looking to participate in this challenge can get more information at www.flamechallenge.org.