Thursday, September 15, 2016

Do facts hurt science communication?

Like Dr. Suess’s Grinch, I’ve puzzled ‘til my puzzler is sore. The source of my puzzlement?  Contrary to what I’ve thought for much of my career, facts—no matter how well presented—don’t necessarily help meet communication goals. In fact, facts may hurt.

On the same day I was reviewing the keynote address from the recent North American Congress on Conservation Biology (NACCB), I ran across a New York Times article highlighting an issue prominent in the keynote—the same facts mean different things to different people.

The New York Times piece, Why facts don’t unify us, describes the findings of a study titled How People Update Beliefs about Climate Change: Good News and Bad News. In this study, people with different beliefs on climate change became more polarized in their views after being given the same scientific facts. While this finding helps explain the wide rift on the subject of climate change, it vexes the communicator in me.

The NACCB keynote speaker—Dietram Scheufele, Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin, Madison—cited similar findings in his talk. If you haven’t heard this keynote, Communicating science at the nexus of policy and action, I encourage you to watch it on YouTube.  In this address, Scheufele discussed several studies showing that beliefs influence how we process facts; he offered these four take-away points:

Labeling/Language Matters.
This point is supported by a study, Public attitudes toward biofuels: Effects of knowledge, political partisanship, and media use, which reveals different reactions to biofuels terminology, based on political affiliation.

The Same Information Means Different Things To Different People.
The same biofuels study found that greater access to news influenced people of different political affiliations differently, increasing the polarity of their opinions. Scheufele also referred to work on cultural cognition by Dan Kahan and colleagues.

Our Values Also Influence How Much We Trust Sources.
Supporting this point is a study on public trust in institutions such as science and technology museums: Opposing ends of the spectrum: Exploring trust in scientific and religious authorities. Trust of sci/tech museums as authorities was strongly correlated with people’s political ideology and Evangelical Christian status.

Communication That Doesn’t Account For Values Is Worse Than Not Communicating At All.
A study lead by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth, Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial, found that pro-vaccine messages don’t necessarily produce pro-vaccine results. Message effectiveness varies depending on the parent’s existing attitudes toward vaccines. For some parents, pro-vaccine messages may have actually increased misperceptions or reduced the intention to vaccinate children.

I’m going to put these four take-away points on my bulletin board as continual reminders. Every communication project needs to take them into account. They’ll remind me how important it is to know my audiences, as well as to conduct formative evaluation with target groups when developing communications. 

In the meantime, my puzzler will continue to hurt. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, if it makes me think more about the audiences with whom I want to communicate.

Harkening back to the Grinch, Suessian rhyme and meter inspire these thoughts:

Scicomm should not lead with facts at the fore. 
Scicomm, it seems, needs a little bit more.


  1. What an eloquent, succinct post. It seems that the "deficit model" of science communication is so intuitive and (ostensibly, for the large part) so wrong. But what does that mean for science communication practice? There are some ideas but figuring out how to implement them well has been puzzling a lot of researchers and practitioners, and is probably going to hurt lot of people's puzzlers for a long time...

  2. Thank you, Aviv. I'm pleased that the post resonates with you. You are right on target with the question of what this means for the practice of science communication. This question is one for which we'll be seeking answers for a long time, I think.