SciComm: Alternative(s to) facts

Not all that long ago the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a whopping 152 page report on the need for and complications involved in communicating science (“SciComm”) effectively (for a shorter, tl;dr summary, check out this by Rose Hendricks). The report is handy and covers a lot of related research on the topic, but it brings to mind an old tune in science outreach — facts and argumentation aren’t winning many converts over to “team Science.”

This is no surprise really; in fact, we’ve known it for some time now. To gloss over a tired idea, the general concern is that the so called “deficit model” just doesn’t work — the idea that what the “public” needs is to be be informed on the science they may not know in order to jump on board with a target idea. What we often see instead when using this approach (at least on controversial topics) is the “backfire effect” — a process where presenting verifiable facts can leave the audience further entrenched in an initially held, contrary belief.

One would think with how much we’ve heard this bit circulated in “SciComm” circles that we’d stop doing it, but it’s hard. And for every article I read that decries the deficit model, I see at least 10 that don’t offer any alternatives, or instead note an alternative that really just amounts to “argue better.”

For a tidy example, take this Scientific American article “How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail.” I’ll admit some over-generalization here, but the prescription seems to simply be “argue the facts nicer” or “argue the facts from a shared perspective.”

And while this may indeed be the answer, I personally feel it’s worth reminding ourselves that science outreach can exist on a much wider spectrum than “convincing someone.”

So without trying to be prescriptive to any one methodology (I certainly don’t know what the “best” science communication route is myself!), I wanted to at least remind us of some of the gambit of possibilities that exist. Taking a look:

Hands on exposure

While this may not always be practical, from a pedagogical perspective, it’s hard to think of anything more powerful. Why “tell them” when an individual can work the data and see the results his or her self? I myself am a success story here, having been skeptical of evolution for the longest (despite my science courses) before I got to actually see it in action in a bacterial growth lab. You might be surprised how well-tooled your own work is to such a strategy.

Citizen science

Similar to the above note, but perhaps a step beyond a “lab on the road” style or otherwise, is citizen science wherein anyone can take actual ownership of the science itself and participate on a significant scale. If your interested in setting up a project or some examples, Zooniverse and SciStarter are some great hubs.

Arts and entertainment

With the beauty of nature, the amazing successes of technology, and the mysteries of the universe, it’s interesting that the products of science do not nearly dominate the entertainment and art culture of our world. And yet it may well be the venues of SciFi film and books, art, comics, games, competitions, and Netflix that provide a more direct route to the modern listener. While perhaps not the typical domain of science, it might should be. Granted “Cosmos” won’t solve all our science education woes, but a broader movement is worth consideration.

Policy and system approaches

It may well be that the best way to advance a specific thought in scientific understanding has almost nothing to do with the science itself. Education reform, further funding, creation of jobs, the number of free hours in the typical work day, public access, the relationship between major social groups (such as religion) and science,  the socioeconomic well-being of the public… these are all easy names here. It may not be the kind of work that a typical scientist enjoys, but it may rather well be what’s needed.

Non-argumentative communication

The moment you move away from convincing someone with the best argument, you end up with quite a few different techniques at your disposal for forming a shared understanding. Bear in mind, research may showing varying mileage of success here, but to name a few:

  • Focus on storytelling and the benefit of narrative
  • The Socratic method
  • Discussing shared values
  • Exploratory dialogue (questions without intent to persuade)
  • Sharing excitement (rather than conviction)

…and so on. Again, these are just examples, not prescriptions. But here is a chance for science communication to dig into the pre-existing knowledge of social science and psychology to see what modes of communication really are more effective.

And I’m sure there are other, likely better, methods still out there. Some yet to be employed, and some simply not mentioned here.

I won’t pretend to know which “way” science communication should go, or even that there could exist a “best practice” given the varying audiences and reasons involved. Still, we do know what doesn’t work, and we know that we have other options out there.

So before we repackage the old deficit-model or rebrand it with some tweaks, I’d argue it’s worth putting our thinking caps on, getting a little creative, and putting some grit into seeing what else is out there. And for that matter, sharing what’s worked for you.

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