What Can We Do About the Science Communication Crisis?

We have almost no data on how specific print, television, or Internet stories influence public perception of scientific issues—and it’s crucial to find out. In the 2004 Academy Award-winning drama Sideways, Paul Giamatti’s character, a wine aficionado, makes it quite clear he doesn’t like Merlot. He prefers Pinot Noir. In a spat outside a restaurant during one of the film’s more memorable scenes, a visibly upset Giamatti screams: “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving.

I am not drinking any [expletive] Merlot!” After the release of the movie, the price and overall sales of Merlot fell significantly, while those of Pinot Noir skyrocketed. Many commentators—and researchers—have attributed these changes, at least in part, to the movie’s success. When asked which wine he actually prefers, Giamatti admits he’s more of a beer guy. Often discussions in healthcare seem no less whimsical—public discourse about scientific issues of immense societal importance driven by those unfamiliar with the potential benefits and consequences of their commentary.

Consider, for example, August 2009, the month Sarah Palin raged against Obama’s “death panels,” referring to the provision for end-of-life consultation payments in the proposed health reform law. Within a week, the provision was removed from the Senate bill, and the entire reform effort was in jeopardy. In the next month, top US newspapers published over 700 articles about it, and nearly 90% of Americans had heard of “death panels.”

Last winter brought with it the largest US outbreak of measles in decades, following years of claims by some politicians and celebrities that vaccines against this and other dangerous diseases cause autism, despite no supporting scientific evidence for that assertion—and despite the fact that any doctor (except perhaps the two running for President) will tell you otherwise).

There are also more positive examples. When Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on live television in 2000, colonoscopy rates increased more than 20% in the following months, and higher rates were sustained for almost a year after the show aired. More recently, a New York Times article exposed Turing Pharmaceuticals’ decision to raise the price of Daraprim—a drug used to treat a serious parasitic infection—by more than 4000%. Amidst public backlash, the company’s CEO offered a (vague and reluctant) promise to lower the price of the medicine.

All these cases point to a fundamental problem: communicating science to the public is powerful, and it’s potentially dangerous—but we know surprisingly little about how to do it. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. And we know even less about what the public’s subsequent understanding of a scientific issue and its willingness to grapple with it wukk be. Many of today’s most important political and social issues are deeply rooted in science, but so far our ability to generate scientific knowledge has outpaced our ability to communicate it.

Some would argue we need to train scientists to be better communicators. Less than one-third of Americans believe scientists communicate effectively and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the general public and the scientific community continue to hold wildly divergent views on issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, immunizations, and evolution. A recent analysis of top neuroscience programs found that none required a course on science communication. Other work suggests that humanities and social science faculty at universities are more likely to engage the public than are their colleagues in science and technology.

Instruction in science communication is important, but incomplete. The public’s response to complicated, emotionally-charged scientific issues is too complex to be meaningfully addressed simply by suggestions to “limit jargon,” “use short sentences,” and “start with an anecdote.” We need to learn to engage without sensationalizing, enchant without deceiving, compel while staying true to the underlying science. Equally important, though, is developing a framework for countering erroneous and misleading claims that pervade scientific discussions—fueled by the Internet’s democratization of scientific information (and opinion) that brings its own benefits and challenges.

Ultimately what scientist and non-scientist communicators need is a deeper understanding of both the process of effective science communication and the outcomes of communication in terms of public understanding and sentiment. We have almost no data on how specific print, television, or Internet stories influence public perception of scientific issues. We don’t know how the public responds to media coverage of personal stories versus landmark clinical trials and scientific breakthroughs; what the effect of inflammatory presentation, celebrity status, or perceived scientific expertise is; how unbalanced media coverage compares with false equivalencies; how different sub-populations respond to different forms of media and styles of presentation.

This lack of knowledge is partly because these trends are hard to study—but partly because we haven’t tried hard enough to study them. What we do know is that the way Americans consume scientific information is changing. In 2010, only one-third of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of scientific information; that number has now doubled and can only be expected to grow. Print and television news organizations today are less likely to employ full-time science journalists and are devoting fewer resources to science departments, raising concerns about the quality and depth of coverage.

So what should be done? An important first step will be devoting more research attention and funding to the science of science communication. Governments and private foundations should approach science communication with the rigor of other complex problems in economics, social sciences, and quality improvement. Graduate programs in medicine and the sciences should give students more instruction on how to communicate their hard-earned scientific insights. And the academic community at large should consider innovative ways of communicating research of public importance and develop stronger partnerships with news organizations. If the goal is real-world impact, we can no longer ignore the tremendous potential that lies in leveraging strong media voices to promote or counter claims backed by the weight of scientific evidence.

In the Information Age, we now know that it’s not more information we need—it’s better communication of information. More effective communication may not solve debates, but it will advance them. It moves us from philosophical debates to tactical debates—then back to more enlightened philosophical ones. We shift from “is climate change manmade?” to “what is the best time and method for addressing it?”—and ultimately to “what sacrifices are we willing to make for these changes to become reality?”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once noted that “the real safeguard of democracy…is education.” Today that means having a stronger grasp of science—and it is the responsibility of scientists, medical professionals, policymakers, and journalists to communicate more effectively in a rapidly evolving media environment. We need to recognize that often one inflammatory article diminishes a hundred academic papers.

By Dhruv Khullar: reprinted from the Scientific American magazine

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