2020 Virtual Meeting Report: Insights on Successful Science Communication


By David Faulkner posted 07-09-2020 14:24


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The rise of digital media has inundated the average person with more information than they could ever possibly parse, and the proliferation of communication technologies has made disseminating misinformation easier than ever before. How, then, should scientists—a group of professionals not generally known for their communication talents—balance technical nuance with clarity when their primary competition isn’t other researchers, but rather, Instagram influencers and Facebook grifters with secretive groups? It’s information warfare, to be sure, but the speakers in the 2020 Virtual Meeting session “Communicating Risk in a (Mis)information-Rich World” offered battle-tested strategies, insights into the psychological traps that we all (yes, even us scientists) fall into, and guiding principles of successful science communication. 

Alison Bernstein, PhD, cut her teeth opposing vaccine misinformation groups on Facebook, writing blog posts in 2015 as “Mommy, PhD,” which led to the founding of SciMoms, a blog (and Facebook group) that provides science-based answers to parenting questions. Through these experiences, she’s derived a few strategies for combating misinformation on social media: (1) Debunking is not a viable strategy; it’s an endless game of whack-a-mole. What’s far more effective is to teach people about risk assessment and risk perception. (2) Be aware that pro-science people are generally good at communicating with other pro-science people but not as much with undecided people, while anti-science people are quite good at using Facebook to communicate with undecided people. Therefore, it’s important to be a good resource for your friends and followers on social media, and to find other ways to get good information out to people who may not be part of your immediate in-group! Writing op-eds for local papers or posts for other media projects or starting your own science media project are great ways to help! And (3) Before you can change someone’s mind, you’ll need a foundation of trust. The best way to build that trust is over time, through active listening, and through personal connectivity—not data dumps, heated exchanges, or assertions of expertise.

From the behavioral science perspective, Beth Karlin, PhD, believes that the most important part of science communication is knowing why you’re doing it. During her presentation, Dr. Karlin encouraged would-be communicators to consider what exactly it is that you want to communicate, and then determine the simplest possible way to do so. However, eliminating jargon and reducing the number of bullet points is only half the battle, she asserted, because the most powerful communication tools are understanding and empathy: sometimes, people know what they should be doing differently, but they may lack the resources to do so, and telling them why you think their decisions aren’t scientifically grounded will only frustrate them. Relatedly, presenting folks with a beautiful bit of data may be satisfying as a scientist, but it’s not likely to change someone’s behavior unless there’s a story attached to it that elicits an emotional response that motivates that change, and directions for how to make the change happen. Again, consider your reasons for communicating: What do you want someone to do with this information?

During the Q&A session, the presenters tackled a handful of challenging and fascinating questions. Their responses are provided here in transcript form, loosely edited for clarity.

  • How to balance the challenge of communicating accurately without oversimplifying:
    • Karlin—Details are useful only if effectively communicated. Understand the goal of your messaging: the point is not for people to understand science as well as we do, but rather, to understand what to do. You don’t need to know how your watch works to use it. Think about the useful level of complexity for people to understand. More significance and less precision are helpful.
    • Bernstein—That’s really relevant to how we operate at SciMoms. When we started, we knew we had to be very deliberate about who our audience is, how much information do they need, what do we want people to take away. Most of our posts are very short! There are links out to explainers for people who want more data, but we try to avoid data dumps.
  • What do you do about debunking inaccurate info in real time, especially when it’s from someone in a position of authority?
    • Bernstein—In a lecture about Parkinson’s and lifestyle effects, a presenter included a list of things that had been looked at, which included Reiki. So I stepped in and said Parkinson’s patients show a very exaggerated placebo effect—so that made it easier to start with that and go through the list and debunk things, rather than simply point out the offending list item. Try to find ways to ground your debunking in science.
    • Karlin—When you’re in real time, communicating from authority, be very clear about what is known, and about what is not known. It’s actually better to say what you don’t know, and then say what you do. It doesn’t attenuate your authority to acknowledge that you’re a human being. If anything, it helps!
  • How do we talk about changing data and bodies of knowledge?
    • Bernstein—We tend to talk about science as a static body of knowledge rather than a way of learning. Presenting information that way is helpful to make it easier to give new information.
    • Karlin—I think that makes science more exciting and engaging; it means that it’s still happening, and we’re not missing out. People can be a part of it! And that’s exciting. People are much more resilient than we often think, and that’s important.

This blog was prepared by an SOT Reporter and represents the views of the author. SOT Reporters are SOT members who volunteer to write about sessions and events in which they participate during the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo or 2020 SOT Virtual Meeting. SOT does not propose or endorse any position by posting this article. If you are interested in participating in the SOT Reporter program in the future, please email Giuliana Macaluso.