Science My SciComm: the research-backed need-to-knows

If you’re like me, finding the time to stay sane in your day job, make your meals, water your pets, have personal hygiene, clean your clothes enough that you’re not wearing that same unwashed pair of pants for the 8th time, and maybe have a little fun… well, it isn’t all that easy. If so, then you probably also don’t have much time to shove your face in long-winded, jargon-filled articles about a field of science your not well-read on. (And if you aren’t like me in this, then what are you and why do you have so much free time?!)

And yet for those of us interested in science communication and outreach, there exists a wide scope of work on the intricacies and efficacies of doing so. Being no expert on the literature myself, I’ve sought the wisdom of those who have it, and I’ve tried to synthesize that advice in a pocket-guide of sorts for the science of SciComm. What follows then is a list of the “need-to-know” tips and concepts I’ve found with hopefully some helpful example links or places where the research tends to be pooled — likely in the form of summaries of the research rather than the literature itself (a preference in this busy world perhaps, but you can always follow that extra click to source!).

While each of these is at least research-backed and arguably of notable importance, bear in mind my process (community opinion, selections from seminal reports and reviews) is considerably arbitrary here, and it’s difficult to make any objective claims or “should” statements regarding doing science outreach. It’s also intended as a continual work in progress, so send please do send me your additions and considerations to tack on here!

But enough blabbing, here’s my list of key ideas the research has shown us so far…

The Science My SciComm List

  1. The infamous “deficit model” isn’t very effective. In other words, audience skepticism, misconceptions, or aggression towards a scientific concept will not likely be relieved by educating the audience alone. Various social and psychological factors also come into play that can greatly affect how (or even if!) the information is received.
    • Google is easily your friend for this one, but this piece hits a lot of the high points and a good bit of the data.
  2. Narratives are powerful. People often relate well to stories for a number of reasons. It may be worth re-casting your delivery with a focus on the tale instead of the technicalities.
    • This PNAS paper is probably a good overview (and here’s a nice blog post over-viewing the same concepts).
    • And this surprisingly seems true for peer-reviewed papers also!
  3. Attempts to correct false perceptions can often strengthen them instead. A funny effect of psychology leads us to the “back-fire effect,” whereby the mere fact of naming a misconception can further its hold in memory even if the correction is given afterwards. Some research has gone to show that by “priming” the misconception first (i.e. saying “What you are about to hear is false”) has some alleviating effect here, but tread such issues with caution.
    • Check out this article discussing the idea via the topic of vaccines and autism for an overview of this as well as other related literature.
  4. Cultural cognition and identity are prime in any such effort. Humans have a nasty habit of assimilating only the information that strengthens a positive identity and that coincides with the values of one’s social group (or “cultural cognition”). Some research argues that this is perhaps the foremost concern in science communication on contentious matters.
  5. Framing is (really) important. For all of the previously noted reasons, it’s very likely, if not absolutely necessary, that your message need be couched in a way specific to each audience to be effective. For instance — does you delivery support a positive self-sense of identity? Does it target shared values? Can it be shaped in a way that is coherent with relevant political or religious views? Are there metaphors, language, or examples available that are consistent with your audience’s sphere of knowledge and beliefs? The answer to such questions may well be far more important than any amount of evidence presented.
    • Here’s an excellent article touching on some of the research and the big picture on this through the lens of climate change.
  6. It can be easy for both the science communicator and the intended audience to become stuck in “echo chambers.” Is your science blog being read by groups other than scientists? And how important is that? What about your social media shares? And could the target audience you intend to reach be sheltered from your message by a “bubble” of their own? These are all noteworthy scenarios as seen in some research and worth consideration in your own efforts.
  7. You might be underestimating the benefits of social media. Even if this is not your forte, and even if it’s something that may take a while to learn, benefits from higher citation counts, to keeping informed, and reaching a considerably larger audience have all been shown. Meanwhile, the traditional forms of media and the number of individuals getting their information from them have reduced in scope.
  8. Don’t forget effective pedagogical (teaching) techniques such as good use of visuals, analogies, hands-on activities, collaborative learning, and others. Science communication, even that which addresses social and cognitive considerations, will often still have some instructive element. As such, it’s absolutely worth keeping in mind the techniques that have already been shown useful through years of research in education.
    • This is obviously wide-open territory here, so I’m just going to whet your appetite with a couple examples in climate change work from analogies to using visuals. Open and eager for some broad over-view links here.
  9. If you want to dive farther into the research, here are some places to start:

Again, the breadth and depth of literature surrounding science communication is (obviously) far more abundant than what’s been presented here. While I’ve gathered what appear to me as the seminal ideas bouncing about the “SciComm” community, you may have a handy link or significant topic in mind that I’ve missed. While I want to keep the list here fairly brief, please don’t neglect to send it to me (comment below or drop a line on Twitter)!

Above all though, share your experiences. While we might not all have the time to become science communication experts, inspiration from those who have something great going can be a quick and easy way to emulate success and encourage others to join in!


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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful list Josh! As a graduate student interested in science and science communication, I’ve been given everything I need to become an expert scientist in my field, but find myself wading through scicomm literature without any clear guidance or plan. Lists like this are a great place to start with a strong foothold!

  2. Scott Barolo says:

    Awesome resource–thank you!

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