What’s missing in science communication

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What’s missing in science communication

To promote environmental advocacy, we need science to be a priority to people. But how scientists better communicate their findings to the wider world? Too often, recent studies suggest, science communication fails to address key factors such as  audience curiosity and intelligence, political ideology and personal beliefs. 

Kahan, Dan M., et al. “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing.” Political Psychology, vol. 38, 2017, pp. 179–199. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12396.

Biodiversity is decreasing, oceans are acidifying, natural disasters are more frequent and intense than ever. Climate change is happening. Still, climate change deniers still exist. This shows that science communications are not creating the desired impact. Professors, policy-makers, documentary filmmakers and journalists are pursuing efforts to improve the access and influence of scientific information.

According to a recent study led by Dan M. Kahan at Yale University, effective science communication must consider the scientific knowledge and curiosity of the audience.  Political and religious ideologies also must be addressed especially regarding politicized issues like climate change, abortion, and gun control.

To explore how ideologies and scientific knowledge affect the processing of scientific communications, Kahan and his colleagues studied two groups with opposing beliefs. They compared Republicans and Democrats, as well as religious and non-religious people. The participants, who had varied levels of scientific knowledge, were asked about controversial topics and to state how much risk they felt towards them. The surprising results showed that people’s previous opinions are unlikely to change even if they understand the science. Having more scientific knowledge actually increases bias. Intelligent people rationalize their viewpoints, so they use their knowledge and mental effort to support arguments they favor.

In another study, the researchers looked at scientific curiosity. Their assumption was that people who do not know science rarely try to learn, read about, or even watch scientific shows or documentaries; they generally find them boring. However, the authors note that curiosity is not scientific intelligence. While they are related, many individuals who are intelligent enough to understand science are just not interested, often remaining in their own belief circles.

For this reason, the study was disguised as a “social marketing” survey. It mixed topics about science with entertainment and sports and asked people to pick their favorite subjects. They also compared viewings of popular YouTube videos to science programs and found that while the science programs sparked much greater interest in people with scientific curiosity, pop culture curiosity persisted in both groups.

Finally, to compare the differences between science curiosity and knowledge, the authors used another method that presented participants with different political opinion articles they were familiar with and ones they were not; they were then instructed to pick the articles they preferred. While knowledge did not affect their options, people with a high level of curiosity would pick articles that were surprising to them even if they would disappoint their political beliefs.

The researchers’ main conclusion was that people who possess scientific curiosity, regardless of their level of intelligence, are more likely to form views at odds with their political beliefs. Partisanship was still present but it diminished rather than worsened it, as observed with intelligence levels. This finding suggests that curious people are more open-minded towards different perspectives especially if they are unfamiliar with the topic.

As a solution, the authors propose promoting science curiosity among people. However, the path to that is not easy. The most extensive and common route is through education, making science more entertaining to children. A more immediate strategy would be to make science catchier and more appealing to adults.

Filmmakers have recently been figuring out how to make scientific themes more engaging. One is the creation of a new genre of film, climate-fiction, otherwise known as “Cli-Fi.” An example of “Cli-Fi” is the recent Darren Aronofsky film, Mother, which has a metaphorical environmental doomsday theme in parallel to the primary narrative. Another case is Leonardo Di Caprio’s new documentary, Before the Flood, which joins political issues and science in a dialogue about climate change. When DiCaprio spoke during a Yale climate conference in 2017, his presence attracted many attendees who might not be commonly interested in science and may have created more awareness. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of these films and conferences remains unclear.

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