Spreading the word: Thoughts on communicating science effectively

Communicating science to the general public is important – perhaps now more than ever. But it is also uniquely difficult. Scientists at Tyson Research Center and others discuss strategies for widely and effectively sharing their work.

Words are important, yet they rarely mean the same thing to every audience. One glaring example of this is how scientific experts talk about climate change versus how the general public understands the words they use. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses probability terms such as “very likely” and “unlikely” to communicate uncertainty in its reports. A 2014 IPCC report, for example, stated that “it is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on a global scale.” According to the panel, the term “very likely” implies a greater than 90% chance of accuracy. Psychological research, though, shows the general public misinterprets the meaning of this term, reading “very likely” as a roughly 60% to 70% chance. 

Why do scientists and the general public understand these probability statements in such different ways? The answer lies in how the two groups have been conditioned to understand language. “There’s a huge amount of interpersonal variability in the sense that different people understand or use words in different ways,” said David Budescu, a psychologist at Fordham University. In their countless years in academia, scientists have been trained to never speak in absolutes. They view their work as a never-ending pursuit of the truth and take few things as “certain.” The general public, on the other hand, tends to demand definitive, straightforward language. Often, the result is a communications dilemma between the two groups.

Solny Adalsteinsson

The community at WashU’s Tyson Research Center thinks about this issue a lot. “Scientists need to understand how the way we communicate probabilities is received by the general public,” said Solny Adalsteinsson, staff scientist at Tyson. Rachel Becknell, a graduate student researcher at Tyson, agrees: “Our research is not something that the general public has necessarily been trained to interpret.”

For many scientists, the solution is to better educate the general public by providing more information about the scientific process and how scientists are trained to speak about their work. This is called the deficit model of communication, which simply means providing the audience, the general public for example, with more information. When it comes to reforming science education, the deficit model is viewed in a very positive light. “I’m a firm believer in education and giving information appropriately so people can actually understand scientists,” said Leonard Green, professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. Essentially, the idea is that if students understand scientific jargon early on, they will better understand scientific communications later in life. “The first section of any kind of science course should be philosophy of science so that students can understand different terms and what scientists are really saying,” said Brett Seymoure, a postdoctoral research associate at Tyson.

Rachel Becknell

In a neutral classroom setting, the deficit model works well. But in the real world, when it comes to messaging surrounding highly politicized topics like climate change, this approach is less successful. “The deficit model means that they [the general public] don’t know enough yet. Let’s fill in the deficit, fill in the blanks, let’s smarten them up and then they’ll get it,” explained David Ropeik, a noted expert on risk perception. When dealing with adults who have strong opinions on controversial issues, communicating as though they have a “deficit” in knowledge or intellect can “trigger defensiveness, hostility, and mistrust toward the communicator,” said Ropeik. Essentially, the deficit model works in the classroom, but applying it to controversial issues can backfire.

Of course, communication is two-sided, and there also is room for the scientists to improve how they communicate. “We shouldn’t put all of the responsibility on the public to be able to talk like scientists,” said Becknell. “It takes us years and years to be able to communicate like this. I’m in the sixth year of my PhD, and I still find reading scientific literature tedious most days. We all need to learn how to communicate better to non-scientists to make our research interesting and exciting and to learn how to quickly convey the point.”

Suzanne Loui

To better communicate results, cognitive scientists and psychologists recommend taking into account the feelings and backgrounds of the people to whom scientists are communicating. Suzanne Loui, lecturer in environmental studies and faculty mentor of the science communications team at Tyson, urges scientists to “talk about science in a way that places it in a human, daily context.” Instead of using cautious language to recite back data and results to the public, scientists need to acknowledge the real-world impact of their work and, in terms the public understands, explain why it’s important for them to be aware of it.

Risk perception experts tend to agree. “Any science communication that attempts to deal with just the facts alone and solve the problem of getting through to people is doomed to fail,” said Ropeik. “That is not what science has taught us about how human cognition works.”

The issue is complicated and difficult, and it’s no surprise that experts approach it in different ways. But many science communicators, including scientists at Tyson and researchers in psychology and risk perception, agree: The first step to getting everyone on the same page may be to simply recognize that words mean different things to different audiences.


About the Author

Will Slatin is a sophomore at WashU, majoring in economics and environmental analysis. He is the Vice President of Finance for WashU’s undergraduate Net Impact chapter. (Net Impact is a national organization focusing on sustainability in business.) Will is also involved in the Washington University Green Ambassador (WUGA) program. He is most interested in understanding how to approach environmental issues in analytical, economically feasible ways. Will spent the summer working as an undergraduate fellow at the Tyson Research Center Science Communications team.