Science & Research

Talk identifies science communication barriers

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The country’s lack of interdisciplinary infrastructure prevents scientists from effectively communicating their work, a job made urgent by the growing ethical, legal and social implications of emerging developments in science, said Dietram Scheufele, chair of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a lecture Monday night. Scheufele’s talk, held at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, was the second in an ongoing series of science communication lectures organized by the Science Center.

Social science research should be better used to prevent science from getting “out-communicated,” Scheufele said. Research in fields like sociology and psychology can help the scientific community identify barriers to communication and ways of breaking them down, he said.

For example, some people cite a lack of trust in scientists as an impediment to broad acceptance of scientific ideas, but surveys show that citizens place significantly more trust in university scientists than in either the media or religious leaders, Scheufele said. 

The bigger problem is that members of the scientific community fail to use empirical data from social science to frame their work in the right ways ­- a crucial task given that everyone takes “cognitive shortcuts” to understand ideas, he said.

Scheufele used the Scopes trial as an example. In the heat of the controversy over teaching evolution, proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute hired social scientists to figure out how to frame their arguments in ways that would appeal to “key values that we all buy into,” Scheufele said. Such research enabled them to come up with powerful slogans like “Teach the Controversy” and “It’s Just a Theory.”

“We need to, as academics, think about ways to connect with people on particular issues,” Scheufele told The Herald, adding that the “triggers” that make people care about scientific concepts differ ­- the way to frame stem cell research effectively is not the same as the way to frame nanotechnology effectively. Additionally, scientists need to take into account the social context of their work, he said.

Surveys to figure out where the public stands will help scientists learn how to present and discuss different issues, Scheufele said. Scientists must also find ways to reach the large portion of society that does not follow scientific news. Another dramatic event like Sputnik’s launch could spur public interest, he said, but in its absence, more scientists should use social media to spread their ideas. 

Scheufele acknowledged that in collaborating with social scientists to learn how to better publicize their work, scientists run the risk of losing some of their objectivity and sacrificing some of the trust the public has placed in them. “But in many ways, if we look at the big scientists of our time … these people have always thought beyond their disciplines,” he told The Herald. “Einstein has written countless letters to children to talk about what’s important to science.”

“In modern political environments, communication is not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity,” Scheufele told The Herald. 

“If there’s a vacuum, people will fill that with seemingly scientific information,” and often that information won’t be true, said David Targan ’78, associate dean of the college for science education.

William Maulbetsch, a biophysics PhD student, said though the lecture gave him a good sense of the problems facing scientific communication, he was left unsure about their solutions.

“I think it’s good to focus on the framing. I think that’s something that’s wholly lost on scientists generally – the whole mentality of scientists is to be without a frame, generally,” he said.

“It was kind of interesting because I don’t think any of us who goes to work every day as a scientist thinks, ‘Oh, maybe I should go out of my way to publicize something or communicate this or what’s a good way to communicate this effectively?'” said Kyle Helson, a cosmology PhD student who attended the talk.

Though not to the extent that Scheufele emphasized, some level of infrastructure to promote interdisciplinary collaboration already exists at Brown, Targan said. 

Unlike schools like Cornell that have separate schools for different disciplines, Brown’s single faculty body enables people to collaborate more easily, he said. For example, 50 percent of science students take at least four social science courses, Targan wrote in an email to The Herald.