“What?” versus “So What?”: Pitfalls in science communication for scientists

As the events of 2020 have shown us, science communication and its appreciation have come a long way over the past decade. Many more scientists now understand the benefits of communicating their research with those outside of their field of expertise and even more broadly with the general public. Engaging with science communication can help us promote our research, obtain better funding and research opportunities, share our joy for our research topic, and even validate its importance for the world as a whole. Despite this, many science communication pitfalls still exist, and they can lead to misunderstandings between the messenger, message, and their audience.

This article expands on the EuroScience Open Forum 2020 panel session “What vs So What – Pitfalls in Science Communication” which highlighted some of the common pitfalls scientists fall into when communicating their science — regardless of their best intentions and those of the institutions that support them — and discussed their possible remedies. If you missed the session, you can watch it here.

Pitfall 1: Different interests and interpretations

In an ideal world, a scientist would communicate the results of their work as facts, as explanations that answer the questions of what or how. However, the stories that most interest the public and policymakers are those that focus on the so what — that is, the consequences of the results and their importance. This fact often leads to problems in the translation of findings in a scientific study into a media story that describe their impacts for the general public. A very prominent example comes from a scientific publication from the Journal of Medical Communications. The scientific article authored by a research group from the University of Exeter stated that a chemical compound that occurs in human flatulence — but also rotten eggs and some cheeses — may someday be useful in mitigating the cell damage that is partially responsible for certain diseases. A media interview resulted in this headline of the Time Magazine (which was corrected later):

Nowadays, this question of impact — the so what — has also become crucial in funding applications, so it definitely pays off to learn how to address it well. If we want our work to make a difference in the world, we must be able to think of our work in more practical terms and as more than l’art pour l’art, whether we are sharing it with the global scientific community or society as a whole.

Pitfall 2: Misconceptions about the scientific working method 

If you want absolutes, speak to a politician or a pope.” – Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty. Scientific research always starts with a working hypothesis and the definition of a problem or an experiment setup with clearly defined constraints and parameters. The scientific results obtained may, in the end, confirm or falsify just one aspect of the working hypothesis and give hints on others. In science, knowledge is created gradually, through dialogue and dispute. However, scientific knowledge usually exists only within theories and models supported by hypotheses that have yet to be disproved, which is far from a satisfactory answer to someone looking for certain facts instead of uncertain likelihoods. The following diagram illustrates quite impressively the complex method of scientific research.

A textbook example of what can happen when the public and media fail to understand the scientific working method was the campaign of the German tabloid BILD against the virologist Prof. Christian Drosten. In April 2020, Prof. Drosten and his team had published a scientific article on a preprint server that came to the conclusion  that children could be as contagious as other age groups. Statisticians took issue with the way in which Prof. Drosten had interpreted the data in the usual peer-review manner. BILD took these critical comments out of context and claimed (falsely) that the study was “grossly wrong” and could have led to the closure of kindergartens and schools. The newspaper used the low public understanding of the scientific working process to discredit not only a respected scientist and science communicator, but also the decision of the German government, which was not solely based on the findings of the study by Prof. Drosten.

Even though our work has us inching ever closer to the complete truth, we base our predictions and answers on what we know now, our most perfect models. To reach the scientific truth through the most direct of paths, we cherish a high level of scrutiny and strict peer review to moderate and direct our conclusions. As researchers at the forefront of human knowledge, we need to understand how our professional adjustment to uncertainty and an ever-changing knowledge landscape can seem unreliable to the general public. Despite our expertise, we always only have the best possible answers at a particular time — and not the absolute truth.

Pitfall 3: Oversimplification muddles the message

“You should make things as simple as possible but not simpler.” Already Albert Einstein knew about the dangers of simplification, which is often a necessary evil in science communication, because meaningful scientific results and their relevance tend to be extremely complex and difficult to describe in context. Without a careful balance, oversimplification can become a harsh noise in the communication channel that leads to the transmission of a false message. This very common pitfall is very well illustrated by the chart below, which finds a correlation of 94,71 % between the cheese consumption per capita in the US and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. 

Of course the correlation is purely coincidental and has no scientific explanation whatsoever, but correlations like this are very often used to oversimplify complex findings and even to draw wrong conclusions. 

As much as it is a powerful tool to extend the reach of our research, rash simplification can not only destroy the message, but also become dangerous and muddy our credibility and reputation. Before simplifying our research to target those who may not be experts, we should first take the time to examine our metaphor of choice, discuss it with others, and make sure that it does not muddle the message itself.

Pitfall 4: Reluctance to disappoint leads to extrapolation

The outcome of basic scientific research is what it says on the tin: to add to the body of scientific knowledge. In today’s fast-paced media culture, where a cacophony of sensationalistic claims is the norm, the so what of a scientific study needs to be communicated with care — as a conjunctive instead of an indicative. A common (and disheartening) consequence of scientists excitedly communicating their research are the large, unjustified leaps in reasoning that seem thrilling, but may lead the audience to extrapolations that simply do not apply to the communicated results.

A good example is the (in)famous red wine study of 2012. A research group at the Cardiovascular Disease Research Center of the University of Alberta in Canada published a study that showed — via experiments on rats — that the molecule resveratrol, which can be found in grapes and other foods, can improve cardiac function and skeletal muscle strength during exercise. In an interview, the principal investigator stated: “I think resveratrol could help patient populations who want to exercise, but are physically incapable. Resveratrol could mimic exercise for them or improve the benefits of the modest amount of exercise that they can do.”  This is how the study and the interview were picked up by the media:

We all are sometimes guilty of delivering a message in which we omit all our strictly defined conditions and parameters, because (even if greatly exciting for us) most scientific research is not interesting for everyone. In science communication, we should respect the nuances of our own work, tread carefully, and stop short of presenting a specific result as something that is likely to apply to a greater problem.

Pitfall 5: Preaching to the choir

Should we even call it good science communication if it is confined to the scientific community? Giving lab tours to our colleagues or writing opinion pieces on the inner workings of our field is beyond valuable. Still, good science communication is the key factor that lets us bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists.

The days of the old boys’ clubs are long gone and the science we do is funded for the benefit of humankind, so what right do we have to keep it away from the rest of the world? At the end of the day, we are privileged enough to witness the joy that learning about our research can give to those we share it with, and who may not otherwise know about it or ever interact with a researcher in our field.

Overcoming the pitfalls

Despite the science communication pitfalls that scientists might face, science communication is not only firmly established as a valuable tool that benefits our profession and society. But, as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown, it is also an important pillar that can help our societies tackle the grand challenges of the future. For us, as scientists, it is important that we consider the pitfalls that currently exist and how we can overcome them, but they shouldn’t overwhelm us or scare us away from engaging and sharing our research with a broader audience. We aren’t perfect and every chance to communicate our science to non-experts is an opportunity to learn and improve our skills and understanding.

By Ivana Kurecic and Matthias Girod

This article has been conceptualized by EuroScience´s Science Policy Workgroup on Science Advocacy and Communication. The working group strives to help researchers communicate their work and increase its impact in society. For more information and if you would like to contribute to EuroScience´s Science Policy Workgroup, visit this site or contact Teresa Fernandez.

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