The future of science outreach and re-thinking the ‘fight’ against science communication with the public

Are scientists bad communicators?

An article published in The Guardian two weeks ago caused a firestorm of responses from the online science communication community. The focus was on the fact that science communication cannot simply be scientists lecturing from a soapbox using graphs, statistics, and facts. To scientists, this is a natural approach: when presented with something incorrect, you use data to support the truth. It’s how we’ve increased our knowledge of the natural world through the use of the scientific method.

But as the author of the article emphasised: sharing facts and data isn’t the same as connecting with people. People (scientists included) don’t like being told what to do—this past summer post-Brexit has recently made that clear. People en masse ignored the warnings and recommendations of experts on the implications of voting to leave the EU. At the same time, it’s apparent that people are looking for information when make decisions, but in the case of decisions related to GMOs or vaccinations, they might be getting their information from non-scientific sources.

The needs of scientists and the needs of people are the same: we want to be heard. Scientists want to tell the world about crises like global warming but become frustrated when met with skepticism and doubt. People are worried about the health of their families but become frustrated when met with elitism and over-confidence. Some scientists have replied to this article saying that it’s the job of journalists to accurately portray their work or that it’s not possible to work with a scientifically illiterate society. But perhaps the most striking question is If we can’t use data when talking about science, what can we do?

The future of science communication

While the work we do can seem disconnected, due to our research being driven by data and statistics, there is always a connection back to the real world. Maybe it’s our drive to make the world a better place or our drive to continually ask why? and how?. As researchers, we all have a story of what inspires us and where we want to go next. Using a narrative approach can be an effective way of connecting through science instead of presenting an array of facts and figures and hoping they’ll make an impression.

We also have many great scientists and science communicators to inspire us: from Michael Faraday and his Christmas lectures to the modern-day heroes of Carl Sagan and Bill Nye. These pioneers showed us that the world is interested in what we do and wants to learn about how the world works. They also showed us that public aren’t just a group of uninterested science skeptics as we might have a false impression of.

Overall, the future of science communication needs to be focused on more than just sharing science. It needs to be driven by a desire to have a conversation outside of our own research communities. Thankfully, we’re doing our research in a world where it’s easier to connect with other people more than ever before. We have ways of breaking apart the typical stereotype of what a scientist looks like and new social media outlets to share our science beyond Powerpoint presentations, including podcasts, Twitter, and Reddit.

I’ll leave our readers with a challenge to become a part of this change in your own research careers. Even if you’ve never seen yourself as a science communicator, take a few minutes of your time to reach out to a new audience. Talk about your work over a pint of beer, set up a Reddit Ask Me Anything about a new paper you just published, or visit a local museum or a school to talk to students about your work and your field of research.

It’s difficult to feel like we work in a world that doesn’t care about what we do. By finding the time to listen instead of lecture, scientists can start to bridge the gap between ‘us’ versus ‘them’, a gap which never really needed to exist in the first place. We can start winning the science communication ‘fight’ not by being better but instead by showing the world that we are all on the same team.

Erica Brockmeier

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5 thoughts on “The future of science outreach and re-thinking the ‘fight’ against science communication with the public”

  1. Given that over 40,000 people marched for science in Chicago alone, wouldn’t the article and headline be more accurate if they reported that “Hundreds of Thousands” not “Tens of Thousands” marched for science in April?

    I think that to assure some consistency, all the science deniers out there should stop enjoying the benefits of science. No more medicines – heck no more polio vaccines for them. No more modern medical care; no MRIs, no X-Rays, no cancer cures. Nope live without the science you deny and that Trump doesn’t want to fund. Give up your computers, your cell phones (actually very micro-computers, that they are). Stop watching television or listening to the radio. No more electricity for you. Back to the pot belly stove for heat and giant ice blocks for “air conditioning.

    Yep end your hypocrisy as you and your leader seek to wipe out the National Institutes of Health, medical research, and environmental protection as you are so willing to sacrifice our health and the earth in the name of profits that frankly, you’ll never see. Return to the Stone Age you appear to relish so much. Return to those halcyon days of the 1950s with its Jim Crow segregation and polio. I grew up in the 1950s and, trust me, those were not in any sense the “good old days.”

  2. Thank you for this great perspective. We’re discussing this in our online science communication course (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) with more than 50 science communicators from all over Africa and beyond.

  3. as a scientist who has spent enough time working between academia & industry I cannot but agree with the spirit of this article! As much as I am irritated by disregard for facts and critical thinking, there’s a subtle patronizing attitude in some scientists that makes me quite uncomfortable.
    Indeed, enough of this ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

  4. Great text, Erika! Between “us” and “them”, we need many bridges! Between “us” and “us” too! The distance between two scientists can also be enormous! Open science is a great avenue to strenghten these bridges!