In his welcome and orientation on the third day of The Science of Science Communication II colloquium, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Alan Leshner laid out the day’s objectives. Each workshop participant was assigned to one of four breakout groups. These groups were charged with applying the lessons derived from the first 2 days of the colloquium to four pressing topics in science and science communications: climate change, evolution, obesity and nutrition, and nanotechnology. In particular, each group was asked to
1. Identify the challenges,
2. Segment the audiences,
3. Highlight the body of research,
4. Uncover the gaps,
5. Identify what is most important,
6. Spell out the contexts, and
7. Define and evaluate success.
Each of the breakout groups was to begin with presentations from content experts, communication scientists, and communication practitioners. Over the course of the day, the groups would then devise an action plan for science communication in each of their topic areas to be presented to colloquium participants in a final plenary session.
Reporting during the final plenary session for the breakout group on climate change, Aaron Huertas, press secretary with the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed to the challenge of communicating the relevance of climate change to members of the general public. But many communicators reach professionals whose jobs are affected by climate change. Among these professionals are the “first responders” to climate change, such as civic planners, water managers, coastal planners, military strategists, and meteorologists. Many of these professionals have to take climate change into account in their jobs, and they increasingly will have to do so in the future. They also tend to be nonpartisan, which means that they can largely avoid the political polarization that has characterized the issue. If more of these first responders were accurately reflecting messages derived from science, they could help break through the stalemate that currently surrounds discussions of climate change. In addition, research on how these professionals are integrating climate change science into their jobs and communicating the results to stakeholders could provide key insights into how to respond to climate change.
Many of the assessments done by national and international organizations are driven by stakeholders who need and ask for particular types of information. These requests for information and the data generated by these requests could be studied by social scientists to improve the effectiveness of public communications about climate change. For example, what explicit and implicit messages is the public receiving? Does the message that people are dealing with climate change today breed complacency or fear?
The breakout group developed several proposed actions. One is to have institutions use their convening power to bring scientists together with the people who make decisions based on climate science. These decision makers may have few opportunities at either the local or national levels to talk with each other or with scientists about climate change. The resulting networks of communication could involve scientists more closely in the decisions being made and in the dissemination of information about those decisions.
Climate scientists also would benefit by hearing from the people who use the information they generate. They would learn more about which stakeholders are using their research, thus enhancing their ability to point out how their research is affecting society. They also could improve their toolkits for effectively communicating about climate science to different
audiences and help professional communicators more accurately convey scientific information to the public.
Professional norms for scientists will need to change for them to engage in this work. Their institutions need to encourage and reward scientists for getting out of their laboratories. Science education at the undergraduate and graduate levels could more explicitly include training in science communications. The high relevance of climate science to society creates strong incentives for such changes.
One measure of success would be more public voices validating and endorsing climate science. Nonpartisan voices outside the scientific community could help define what climate change means for the public. Another measure of success would be more local coverage of the effects of climate change and of local responses to change, which is likely to be less polarized than coverage at the national level. A final measure of success would be greater public perception of the importance of the issue. Today, many members of the public rank climate change as a relatively low-level concern. If climate science were more widely disseminated and understood, the salience of the issue would increase, Huertas concluded.
Most Americans do not have enough time to learn about climate change in depth, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, during the discussion session of the breakout group on climate change. But if it were possible to convey five simple ideas about climate change to everyone, Leiserowitz’s proposed list would be the following:
1. It’s real.
2. It’s us.
3. It’s bad.
4. There’s hope.
5. Scientists agree.
The climate communications community has not done an adequate job of communicating these ideas, said Leiserowitz. Yet if the American public understood and accepted these key ideas, people would be able to make more informed decisions both now and in the future.
According to polls, the majority of Americans—63 percent as of April 2013—currently believe that global warming is happening. But only about half of Americans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while a third believe that global warming is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment. Critically, only 4 in 10 Americans
understand that most scientists think global warming is happening, and only 13 percent recognize that “81 to 100 percent of climate scientists think that global warming is happening.” Leiserowitz described this last fact as a “gateway” belief—the more people without strong ideological responses (which is most people) understand the degree of scientific agreement about global warming, the more they themselves believe it is happening, human caused, and a serious threat and the more they support taking action.
The levels of skepticism among the public about global warming are not an accident, Leiserowitz continued. They have been substantially affected by media stories that pit a climate scientist against someone contesting the science and by what he called “a massive disinformation campaign by vested interests who are perfectly happy with the status quo.” This disinformation campaign has borrowed heavily from a similar campaign that sought to convince Americans that the medical profession had not reached a consensus that smoking harms human health.
Global Warming’s Six Americas
Leiserowitz and his colleagues have identified “Six Americas” that each have very different responses to the issue of climate change (Leiserowitz et al., 2013). They are (with percentages of the American public as of April 2013 in parentheses)
• Alarmed (16 percent),
• Concerned (26 percent),
• Cautious (25 percent),
• Disengaged (5 percent),
• Doubtful (15 percent), and
• Dismissive (13 percent).
These groups form a spectrum from the people who have the highest belief in global warming, are most concerned, and are most motivated to take action, to people who have the lowest belief and are least concerned and motivated. On the opposite ends of the spectrum, the Dismissive are outnumbered by the Alarmed. Yet the Dismissive are relatively vocal and tend to dominate public discourse, often giving the false impression that their numbers are much larger. Also, the U.S. Congress has a higher percentage of Dismissives than the general public, partly because the underlying electoral structure of American politics is increasingly politically polarized, Leiserowitz said.
When asked to identify the one question that they would like to ask an expert on global warming, members of the six groups gave different
answers. The Alarmed and Concerned want to know what individuals and societies can do to reduce global warming. The Cautious and Disengaged want to know what harm it will cause and why they should care. Many of the Doubtful and Dismissive, however, want to know how experts know that global warming is happening or is caused by humans—and on a deeper level, why they should trust the experts. Of concern, said Leiserowitz, is the increasingly heard question “is it too late?” among some of the Alarmed, which is potentially dangerous because this conclusion may disempower those who believe in the need for action.
The Six Americas need tailored engagement strategies, Leiserowitz concluded. They interpret the facts in accordance with what they already know, value, and feel. Knowledge is necessary but insufficient. Emotions, values, ideology, and broader social, political, and economic forces all play critical (and often more important) roles in shaping public understandings and the political will to take action.
Nick Pidgeon, professor of environmental psychology and director of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University in Wales, noted that concern over global warming has fluctuated over the past quarter century, with a high in the United States in 2001, according to polling from Gallup. Even though concern today is somewhat lower than this, it could increase again.
Researchers have looked at the factors that influence concern over global warming. Concern about the economy can displace concerns about the environment. Public fatigue over climate change stories and misleading press accounts based on leaked e-mails also have contributed to a decline in concern. Political polarization is increasing the number and vociferousness of skeptics in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Climate scientists, especially in the United Kingdom since the sizable press controversy over leaked e-mails from scientists in late 2009, have asked themselves whether they have lost the trust of the public, though polling in both the United Kingdom and the United States indicates that the loss has not been as great as some have feared.
Pidgeon pointed to three key issues in communicating about climate change. The first involves strategies to communicate about risk in the face of attempts to engender uncertainty. Some aspects of climate change remain uncertain, noted Pidgeon, but these uncertainties do not undermine the five key messages mentioned by Leiserowitz. One way to separate areas of uncertainty from areas of consensus is to separate risk assessment and decision making. People continually make decisions in
the face of uncertainty. The challenge for scientists is to incorporate uncertainty into the information provided to decision makers in useful ways.
The second issue Pidgeon identified involves the narratives that are constructed to reach different audiences. For example, his group has been doing research on public attitudes and values regarding changes in the U.K. energy system. They have identified widespread public values, including the need to reduce the use of finite resources and overall levels of energy use. In turn, these public values are connected to other values ranging from a desire for social justice to a desire for autonomy and choice. The question then becomes how to construct narratives that go beyond the science of climate change and engage these widely shared values.
The third and final issue involves whether scientists should remain in their laboratories or emerge to become science communicators. Are they more likely to retain public trust if they limit themselves to describing the state of the science, or is there room for more engaged advocacy? Today, no consensus exists within the scientific community on this issue.
The State of the Science
Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, reminded the breakout group that climate involves much more than just the earth’s global average temperature. Climate includes the extremes and patterns of temperature and precipitation, the amount of ice in the sea and on land, the temperatures, currents, and chemistry of the oceans, and so on. Furthermore, each of these variables is linked to various societal needs such as agriculture, water flows, and infrastructure.
The climate also changes naturally over time, both in specific locations and worldwide, and these changes will continue. The geological record documents prolonged periods of hot and cold, droughts, sea level changes, and movements of plant and animal species.
What is different today is that multiple lines of evidence point to human-induced climate change above and beyond natural climate change. People who think that the Earth’s biogeochemical system cannot be changed by humans are wrong, said Cicerone. Some effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are immediate, while others have time lags. Ocean currents change slowly, and a glacier can take many years to melt. But the eventual changes, even if hard to predict in detail, are potentially large and disruptive. Again, these changes include not just averages but the extremes. What will be the consequences when events expected to occur once a century on average instead occur much more frequently? How will the frequency of large fires in wild places change? The risks posed by these kinds of disruptive events warrant consideration and action today, said Cicerone.
Mitigation and adaptation are both necessary. Using less fossil fuel will have multiple benefits. Increasing resilience to extreme events, whether occurring naturally or as a result of climate change, is scientifically justified. At the same time, the development of good strategies is needed in such areas as geoengineering as people begin to talk about intentionally intervening in Earth’s climate.
Scientific understanding continues to develop, Cicerone concluded. Conclusions made 20 or 30 years ago are being revisited and refined. New questions will arise as others are answered. But important questions posed in the early days of climate change research have been resolved, and climate science will continue to progress.
Enlisting Trusted Sources on Climate Change
Not only are people too busy to learn much about climate change, said Joe Witte, a researcher at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, but they are “cognitive misers”—they generally are not interested in the details of a scientific conclusion. However, most are willing to follow the advice of someone they trust, just as they trust and follow the advice of doctors without knowing all the details of what a doctor is advising.
A potential source of trusted advice on climate change is the television weather forecaster, Witte observed. They work in the same community as viewers and have many of the same values. They may not have enough time to go into the details of climate change, but they can provide a broad picture. And far more viewers are watching the local news on any given day than are watching such outlets as Fox News.
According to surveys, more than half of television weather forecasters want to talk about climate change, and some have already done so with great success. They may only be able to give the subject 30 seconds, but even that amount of time can convey the five messages mentioned by Leiserowitz. They also can break a longer treatment of climate change into short sections that can bring viewers back for more information.
Witte recommended that scientists adopt a television forecaster in their communities to disseminate information about climate change. About 15,000 weather forecasters serve more than 200 major television markets in the United States. If just a single forecaster in each of those markets made climate change a priority, the public would be exposed to much more climate change science than they are today.
To reach out to television forecasters, Witte recommended that scientists go slowly and think about how best to get their attention. The highest priority in local news is relevance to potential viewers. He said, “News directors will always ask a reporter, ‘Why is your story, which you
want to take a crew and report on, important to the viewers?’” Scientists can use quotations, metaphors, word pictures, comparisons, and other “grabbers” to capture the attention of forecasters. One formula for how to make things stick in people’s minds is captured by the acronym SUCCESS—simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, emotional, and story or stories. Vivid images of how the climate is changing or how some aspect of the Earth system is reacting to climate change can capture a forecaster’s and the public’s attention and build a scientific case.
Local news is basically a headline service, said Witte. “If Moses were to come down today and say, ‘Hey, I have 10 commandments everybody.’ The local news director would say, ‘Give me the first two.’” But forecasters can refer viewers to the web for more information, which allows viewers to become more informed while also recognizing the importance of the issue. It also cross-promotes the website for the TV station, Witte noted, thereby pleasing the station’s sales force.
Surveys of weather forecasters reveal that many are worried about devoting some of their airtime to climate change science or about their capacity to be reporters. In response to these concerns, organizations such as Climate Central and NASA are producing videos and bullet points to make it easier to get climate information into forecasts. In this way, television forecasts can become a form of informal learning comparable to what happens at museums or zoos, Witte said. Audience research is also becoming more sophisticated, so that the prior conceptions of the audiences served by a local media market soon will become better known to broadcast meteorologists. This will enable specific audiences to be targeted, from the doubtful who mistrust scientific information to the alarmed who want to know what they can do to make a difference.
During the discussion session, the group discussed whether scientists risk losing their credibility if they enter the policy arena. As one participant observed, scientists are on a spectrum in terms of how comfortable they are talking about policy issues. Some would prefer to remain in their laboratories; others are eager to enter the political fray. The important point is that opinions about climate change are tied up with politics and personal beliefs, and the most effective science communicators are those who are aware of those beliefs and present science in a way that will not offend a listener’s values.
Another participant pointed out that the existence of a consensus within the scientific community on the occurrence of climate change is not a political issue and can be emphasized without taking an advocacy position. Scientists also can explore the social and ethical dimensions of
decisions related to climate change, and they can detail what is known and what is unknown or uncertain in a scientific or political domain.
Workshop participants also discussed the tendency for information to flow from schoolchildren to their parents when students are taught about such issues as smoking, seatbelts, and environmental hazards. The Next Generation Science Standards include material on climate change, which provides an opportunity to reach students. In particular, as one participant pointed out, success stories in which individual and societal changes not only reduce carbon emissions but bring other benefits are especially effective in engaging students and their parents. Such stories counter the hopelessness some people feel, create social support for behavior change, and demonstrate that humans can change the planet in beneficial as well as harmful ways.
Reporting during the final plenary session for the breakout group on evolution, Robert Pennock, professor at Michigan State University, and Ann Reid of the National Academies observed that a strong consensus on the importance of teaching evolution in K-12 schools and in colleges and universities has emerged in recent years. Major national reform initiatives, including the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), the AP Biology Standards (College Board, 2012), and the report Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education (Bauerle et al., 2011), have identified evolution as one of a handful of central concepts in biology education. This consensus has created an unprecedented opportunity to improve students’ understanding and acceptance of biological evolution.
This opportunity will be lost, Pennock said, unless investments are made in implementing the recommendations of these initiatives. Instructors at all levels need new materials, administrative support, and professional development to be able to teach evolution effectively. Inquiry-based approaches in particular can enable students to build a deeper understanding of not just evolutionary processes and patterns but of how scientists use evidence to support hypotheses and reach conclusions.
A particular need, said Reid, is to develop a narrative that would get across the core concepts of evolution that students should learn. This narrative, which would be developed collaboratively by content experts, communication experts, and teachers, should emphasize the practical and positive benefits that evolution has in everyday life, with examples drawn from medicine, agriculture, ecology, and other fields.
The results of communications research can optimize these initiatives. Important questions include how to reach teachers, students, parents, school board members, and others with information that can convey important concepts and lower resistance to the teaching of evolution. New evaluation metrics could refine both education and outreach. Testing of the core narrative’s impacts on teachers, students, and communities would lead to an iterative process of improvement. For example, what are the best ways to teach evolution without threatening religion or the sense of human specialness?
During the whole-group discussion of the breakout session on evolution, Pennock noted that different audiences require different messages and means of communication. When he was testifying about evolution and the nature of science in the 2005 court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a critical need was to explain evolution and the nature of science without relying on jargon. Rather than discussing “methodological naturalism,” for example, as one would in a philosophy of science class, Pennock explained generally how scientific explanations must be restricted to the physical realm of law-bound cause-and-effect relationships with no appeal to untestable supernatural powers. When speaking to a general audience, on the other hand, he shows a cartoon from American Scientist that effectively makes the point, in a simple, humorous way, that miracles are not allowed in science.
Creationists are very good at conveying their antievolutionary messages, Pennock added. They often describe evolution as “just a theory,” drawing on the common meaning of the word theory rather than the scientific meaning of the word. They regularly speak of evolutionary biologists as “Darwinists,” knowing that much of their audience will associate the term Darwinism with ideology and atheism. They describe the teaching of creationism in science classes as a matter of academic freedom, and they appeal to popular opinion with such catchphrases as “teach the controversy,” or “teaching the other side is only fair.”
Scientists need to counter such framing with their own framing, said Pennock. For example, supporters of evolution should refer to “scientists” rather than “Darwinists,” to “evolutionary biology” rather than “Darwinism,” and to “evolutionary science” rather than “evolutionary theory.” Similarly, academic freedom entails the responsibility to teach science and not religion in science classes, and the central issue in science education is not fairness but integrity. In this way, scientists can respond to creationists with a framing that shifts the terms of the debate while also incorporating the values of science.
Communicating with the general public can require a different set of messages. As was noted on the first day of the colloquium, many members of the public may not be swayed by the opinions of a judge. Furthermore, opinions can vary widely among the public. Polls show that approximately 4 in 10 Americans accept evolution, 4 in 10 reject it, and 2 in 10 are undecided. Winning public favor for the teaching of evolution often means speaking to this middle group in ways that can reach them, said Pennock. In that regard, polls of religious beliefs can be misleading. Polls often ask questions that force respondents into a limited number of categories. For example, they can set up a false choice between God and evolution, whereas many theological positions are more subtle. For example, theistic evolution posits that God created the mechanisms of evolution and then set those mechanisms into action, which is a position that intelligent design creationism explicitly rejects. Even within evangelical Christianity, a wide variety of views toward evolution exist. For this reason, scientists such as Francis Collins, who is director of the National Institutes of Health and also an evangelical Christian, can be particularly good spokespersons for more nuanced views.
A specific audience that Pennock discussed is college students. The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University (http://beacon-center.org) uses the idea of evolution in action to engage both in basic evolutionary research and in education. Instead of focusing on how evolution happened in the past, the NSF-funded center uses an inquiry-based approach to let students investigate evolutionary processes in real time, such as by using digital evolution (http://avidaed.msu.edu). Students test hypotheses to learn how evolution works in such areas as medicine, agriculture, and engineering, using evolution to design robotic control mechanisms, for example, or exploring why a new flu vaccine is needed each year. In the process, they learn about evolution through evidence and inquiry rather than relying on the authority of a lecturer. By observing evolution in action and learning how to formulate evolutionary hypotheses, they correct their own misconceptions in a scientific way and have opportunities to learn about the processes, nature, and values of science. Evaluation of the program has revealed not just an increase in understanding but an increase in the acceptance of evolution.
The bottom line, said Pennock, is that the messages evolutionary scientists convey about evolution need to reflect the values of the audience being addressed, and those messages need to support the values of science.
A Formula for Effective Public Communication
According to Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Information at George Mason University, effective public com-
munication boils down to the following formula: simple clear messages repeated often by a variety of trusted sources. However, many scientists have not been very good at following that formula. They tend to work on complicated subjects and to believe that simplifying their work short-changes it. But Maibach quoted a friend to the effect that “finding simple, clear messages isn’t dumbing down what you know. It’s smartening up what you know so that other people can understand it as well as you.”
Scientists also tend not to like to repeat themselves. They prefer to talk about what is new and on their mind today, not what has been on their mind in the past. Yet the public generally does not absorb messages unless those messages are repeated, Maibach insisted. The first time people are exposed to a message, they often do not even hear it, much less understand it. The human brain is not motivated to process some forms of information, and repetition helps break down this barrier.
Finally, effective communication requires that a message be delivered by a variety of trusted voices. Research suggests that scientists are trusted, but they are not well known. When members of the public have been asked by pollsters to name a single living scientist, two out of three could not name a single one, and about half name scientists who have been dead for many years. Scientists need to work harder to become known to the public, Maibach said, and the scientific community needs to support these efforts. “Carl Sagan was a towering figure in America because he was willing to … put in the time at it, and he was really good at it. We don’t have a lot of Carl Sagans in America today.”
Science communications need to reflect this formula of simple clear messages repeated often by a variety of trusted sources. In the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism (NAS/IOM, 2008), for example, the cover, the chapter headings, and the text all conveyed and repeated straightforward and understandable messages, because many people could only be expected to glance at such a book. This typically requires audience research during the development of a communication to determine whether simple, clear messages are being delivered and whether they are achieving the desired objectives.
There is no such thing as “the public,” Maibach concluded. There are many publics, which requires that science communicators decide which public needs to be reached. Audience research can enable such decisions by providing information about the values of an audience, how a message interacts with those values, and whether a communication advances a mission to the greatest degree possible. Success is not guaranteed, but such an approach can maximize the return on investments in science communication.
Finding the Story in Information
Journalists tell stories, they don’t tell information, observed Dan Vergano, senior writer-editor at National Geographic. When journalists ask questions of researchers, they are looking for stories as well as information. When scientists only provide information, a story can be difficult to find. But if they provide journalists with at least suggestions for a story, they are more likely to get across the messages they want to convey.
Newspaper and magazine stories about evolution tend to fall into three categories, said Vergano. The first involves straight science stories, such as how an animal evolved certain traits because of environmental changes. The second involves the evolution of humans, which tends to generate pushback from some readers. The third involves controversies over evolution, such as coverage of the Dover area school board case. Stories in this last category are often handled by legal reporters rather than science reporters, which means that scientists need to be as simple and clear as possible to be understood. As Vergano quipped, whatever their other qualities, reporters are often the students who failed algebra.
Journalism may not be as powerful in shaping public opinions as popular television shows or movies, but it still can reach large numbers of people. Journalists help shape the public agenda and what people talk about on a daily basis. They also are good at identifying leaders and effective communicators within the scientific community.
Journalists cannot assume that their readers know much about science, so they need to explain things in simple terms. Scientists may be frustrated when they read these explanations in a publication, but they need to take the time and effort to educate reporters so that they can get the story right. Some science reporters are well versed in evolutionary science, but many are not. For example, reporters, like many members of the public, may be confused about the distinction between evolution and the origin of life, which requires that scientists be very clear in explaining these topics.
Science education in the United States has its weaknesses, but so does theological education, Vergano pointed out. Many people are poorly informed about their denomination’s position on evolution. The leaders of a religion may accept evolution, but the members of that religion may not know about that acceptance—partly because they do not hear about that position from their leaders. These leaders would be a valuable potential audience for scientists.
Finally, Vergano pointed out that journalists are not on scientists’ side. Their job is to convey reality as best they can and to generate good stories quickly. In addition, just as there is no public, there are no media. There are good and bad reporters everywhere, and they work for a wide variety of media outlets. Scientists need to find reporters who are good
and feed them good stories because they then will become more prominent within their fields. They should think about these encounters as a campaign rather than a single exchange. Journalism is in the middle of a difficult period as it adjusts to new means of communication and new emphases within the profession. These changes also have given scientists more power to influence journalists. They can publicly discuss and publicize stories, including examples of good and bad journalism, on blogs and other outlets. Scientists “have tremendous power now that [they] didn’t have 20 or 30 years ago to stick a wrench in the gears of the people who are causing the problem,” said Vergano.
Overcoming Misconceptions About Evolution
Many people believe that accepting the occurrence of evolution requires giving up belief in God. As Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said, this is “an extraordinarily toxic view which is hurting science literacy in this country.” It also is demonstrably wrong. Many different theological positions exist, including the idea that God used evolution to achieve his plan, which is mainstream Christian theology. However, for people to learn about the continuum of viewpoints that exists, they have to be willing to listen, which means gaining their trust.
Another common misconception about evolution, according to Scott, is that humans evolved from monkeys. But humans did not evolve from monkeys or from apes. Rather, humans and apes share a common ancestor, just as we have common ancestors earlier in time with monkeys, fish, and petunias. The idea of branching lineages through time is not well understood, said Scott. Even people who have a grasp of natural selection often do not understand the big picture of a branching tree of life.
In her presentations, Scott explains evolution as a three-part idea. The first part is descent with modification, or common ancestry. The second and third parts center on the processes of evolution and the patterns of evolution. Patterns, for example, might focus on the relationships between bears and dogs or between birds and crocodiles. These patterns do not necessarily depend on natural selection, so scientific disputes about the validity of a particular pattern say nothing about whether evolution occurred. When creationists use such disputes to argue that evolution did not take place, they are committing a category error by using a dispute in one area to criticize an idea drawn from another area.
Layers of Understanding
Scientific understanding typically consists of three concentric layers, Scott said. At the core are the well-established ideas of science, such as common ancestry, that are used to explain natural phenomena. Around the core are frontier areas of science where research is occurring; these areas are typically the ones covered by reporters. Finally, on the edges are fringe ideas such as intelligent design creationism. Scientists do not spend any time on these ideas because they typically violate a core idea of science.
One of the most well-known statements in evolutionary biology is that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Evolutionary thinking indicates why biological systems have the characteristics they do. All land vertebrates have four limbs because they are descended from an aquatic vertebrate that had four fins. Humans have 46 chromosomes and chimpanzees have 48 because, in the time since our common ancestor, two chromosomes merged in the human lineage, as clearly revealed by the Human Genome Project.
Scott describes her public presentations and interviews as drive-by science. She delivers a message and then is gone, with little or no opportunity for follow-up. A teacher, in contrast, can spend months with students and build on previous lessons. But even a single exposure to an idea can open a door so that the next time someone hears an idea it will be more comprehensible. A one-time presentation or interview is also an opportunity for education so that reporters have a better understanding of what the controversy over evolution entails. This information may not get into the story, but it can improve not only the current story but future ones. “Lower your expectations,” said Scott. “Things will get better.”
The website of the National Center for Science Education (http://www.ncse.com) provides much more information on all of these subjects, Scott concluded, as well as tools and information needed to counter the efforts of creationists and others to introduce nonscientific ideas into science classes.
Fairness and Objectivity
During the general discussion, members of the breakout session debated the proper role of journalists. One point of view is that the job of a journalist is to report accurately on not just the various sides represented in a dispute but on the balance of evidence supporting those positions. But Vergano emphasized that working journalists tend to favor fairness rather than objectivity. Someone may have an incorrect position, but if that position is having an effect on a community, journalists are obliged to report what that person is saying. They also have an obligation to report
on the evidence that supports or fails to support that position, but they cannot ignore a story.
College Students as an Audience
Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communications at the National Research Council, pointed out that the public is already getting simple clear messages repeated often—but they are coming from a well-financed and well-organized antievolution movement. The scientific community tries to react to these messages, but it largely fails at being proactive.
Labov particularly emphasized the importance of college students as an audience. For many college students, introductory courses in science are in fact terminal courses. These courses offer the last opportunities for instructors to teach students about how science differs from nonscience and about how scientists arrive at conclusions.
Reporting during the final plenary session for the breakout group on nanotechnology, Christine Wallace, president of Catalysis LLC, pointed to a long history of well-meaning nutrition education and awareness programs. Yet understanding of how to create change in this area remains elusive.
Change needs to be driven by the community. For that reason, community-based programs are needed that can be replicated in other locations with local people adapting programs to local needs. Community-based programs can mobilize community resources around issues of nutrition and food insecurity, create incentives, remove barriers, incubate programs, and support them as they develop. Both formative and summative research can inform other models developing in other locations.
In addition, programs must be based on and guided by good science so that they can continuously improve. Multilevel programs are needed to address heterogeneous settings and to secure sustained societal change. Two-way communication is essential for programs to be relevant and respectful. And scientists and communicators need checks and balances to ensure honest analysis and reporting of research. Examples include peer review of press releases, registered trials of nutrition interventions,
broad assessments of the impacts of interventions, and diverse research paradigms that extend beyond randomized controlled trials.
The breakout group proposed creating an education campaign focused on coherent positive messages around nutrition. The program would be consistent with social, behavioral, and health research; adaptable to diverse settings; and adapted in response to research. A particular focus would be low-income families, and particularly women. A broadly based nutrition campaign could convey skills and knowledge that can help parents keep their children healthy. As an example of a short, positive message that could be part of such a campaign, Wallace cited, “Show your love, shape their future.” The effects of such a message would need to be tested, but it is both positive and empowering.
In particular, the working group called for regional collaborative consortia around the issue of nutrition. These consortia would encompass community leaders, policy makers, businesses, and universities. The goal would be to raise the profile of the multigenerational implications of nutrition and food security, where poor nutrition in one generation has an impact on future generations. The consortia could draw on a clearinghouse for best practices and grassroots programs that have been successful, evidence-based resources drawn from research, and resources for advocates working with legislatures and other decision makers. The regional consortia could, in turn, coalesce into a national awareness campaign.
Ticketing people without seatbelts and raising taxes and restrictions on cigarettes were relatively easy ways of changing consumer behavior, said Julie Downs, director of the Center for Risk Perception and Communication in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. But obesity is a more complex issue. “You have to eat,” she said. “We can’t just ban food.” Nutrition messages have to help people decide what to eat every day, and there is a great deal of nuance in those decisions. For example, research on food labels shows that they do not lead to consumption of fewer calories. Nor have labels on restaurant menus resulted in lower consumption. Downs speculated that the amount of cognitive processing involved in interpreting calorie information is part of the reason labels are not more effective. People’s decisions about food are more general than mathematical, she said. For example, the 2,000-calorie-a-day campaign, designed to help consumers use the information on food labels, in most cases only makes choices more confusing.
In laboratory studies, caloric information does help people consume less, she explained. But these results do not translate into real life where there are so many other competing stimuli.
According to Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing at Cornell University, the first stage of communication and collaboration consists mostly of wishful thinking, where researchers hope that what they are doing will be communicated in some way but do not take direct action. In the second phase, researchers take some control over communication by helping to write press releases. And in the third phase, they look critically at the research they are doing and work to adapt it to the needs of the present by addressing questions that solve behavioral issues and are scalable in practice.
Wansink described an epiphany he had when a senior colleague pointed out that his research was fairly obscure and accused him of wasting time. Wansink protested that his results could change people’s behavior, but his colleague asked how that was going to happen. “It hit me like a silver bullet,” Wansink said. He began writing a press release every time he published research. But he soon realized that the press coverage generated by his releases were not changing behaviors. Instead, his research had to be designed to be compelling, memorable, and clear. Research developed with activism in mind has a behavior-related outcome variable and does not require expensive and difficult interventions. Wansink now does every study three times—once in the laboratory, once in the field, and a second time in the field to fix whatever did not work the first time.
As an example, he cited a study of whether lower lighting and quieter music in restaurants encouraged diners to stay longer and eat less. “The world’s not really interested in someone who can point out another problem, but they are very interested in people who can point out solutions,” he said. With a sharp headline and a well-written article, the results of that particular study—showing that lower light and quieter music may reduce the number of calories that diners consume—make a compelling package that the researchers marketed to restaurants.
Journalism, Science, and the Public
Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition at WebMD, talked about the realities of journalism and what to expect when journalists report on emerging science. Media companies are businesses, she said. Although journalists do their best to report accurately, sensational headlines, pseudoscience, and sky-is-falling headlines often get more attention.
Journalists are exposed to bad science all the time, she said, and not every study that is worthy of attention makes it into the news. For example, if writers cannot get in touch with a researcher the day a story is due, they cannot wait until later.
Communicating nutrition science is further complicated by misinformation disseminated by nonscientists who are vocal with their opinions. “Everybody eats,” Zelman said, “and therefore, everyone is an expert in nutrition.” Anyone can have a blog or post information on social media, creating a confusing welter of information for consumers. Furthermore, while Americans may not always act on health information, they are obsessed with finding it, and they often take it from noncredentialed sources.
People are aware that obesity is a problem, she said, but many people want a magic bullet and are drawn to celebrity diets and strategies that promise quick results. The how-to is what they need to know. “That’s where we can really empower people.” Both journalists and scientists have to begin by paying closer attention to how they translate science, with the goal of fostering public understanding.
Unique Communication Issues Around Obesity
David Allison, Quetelet Endowed Professor of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explored some of the practices that create myths and presumptions about obesity and nutrition. Many obesity campaigns target emotions, painting the issue as humorous, scary, or shameful. But “emotion doesn’t always help people think well,” Allison observed. Campaigns on obesity have not improved the accuracy of information or people’s ability to interpret it. Some studies use language that implies causation when correlation is the only certainty. The more people hear a result, the more likely they are to believe it, whether or not it is true. But increasing belief does not increase knowledge.
If the peer-reviewed literature is not accurate, mistakes made by the media are hardly surprising. “Journalists get it wrong quite often. But are we complicit?” he asked, pointing to a press release that clearly misstated the results of a study. He also cited examples of inflated headlines and blatantly misleading articles drawn from perfectly precise journal articles.
Researchers have a tendency to layer studies on top of each other, continuing to do research that confirms already proven results. For example, studies showing that eating breakfast helps prevent obesity were first published in the early 1990s. Further research has confirmed the association beyond a reasonable doubt, but the studies keep coming out. This consumes time and resources without adding new information.
“It’s not enough to point fingers at the journalists and the general public,” he said. Scientists need to do better. One thought is to encourage scientists to take responsibility for providing truthful information. Another step is moving toward meta-methods such as clinical trial registries and public data-sharing policies. Finally, Allison encouraged researchers to
promote public understanding of the processes of science so that the public can ask questions and take a more active role.
Peer review means more to scientists than it does to consumers, Zelman explained. The reputation of the person speaking often garners more trust, which explains some of the cachet of celebrity diets. “What we need to do for consumers is help them trigger that lightbulb moment,” she said. “Help them make those decisions. They don’t have to be perfect.” Telling people they can do the right thing 80 percent of the time and still make a positive change helps them feel that they can succeed. Positive messaging and reassurance also contribute to changing behavior. We eat to live, she said, but also for pleasure. Taking the enjoyment out of food is not a sustainable approach.
Clarity is a crucial factor in communication, Zelman said. Simple, memorable messages will stick with people. The rule of thumb in the media is that no one will remember more than three messages. Apps, which are readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, can help, but they also have to be simple, and wording is important. At WebMD, for example, surveys have shown that visitors particularly like slideshows that mix text and images.
Zelman emphasized meeting consumers where they are rather than expecting them to change how they find and process information. “It takes a village,” she said. “That’s why we’re all here.”
The complexity of obesity and nutrition messaging is daunting, breakout group participants agreed during the discussion session. Change is needed on many levels simultaneously, with shared responsibility among journalists, policy makers, and scientists. Communication about nutrition is a multidisciplinary and multiorganizational challenge requiring teamwork and synchronized messaging across time, since everyone makes immediate decisions about what they eat today and longer-term decisions about food and agricultural policy.
Context is important, as one participant attendee pointed out. Class affects which foods people have access to, while the environment shapes their food choices. Enhanced access to calorie-dense foods, subsidies for ingredients such as corn, and cultural and social forces all play a role in individual decisions. For that reason, healthy eating needs to be a shared goal, at both the family and community levels. Legislators, business owners, and food manufacturers are all part of the solution.
One participant pointed to the difference between explaining the science to consumers and simply giving them actionable information, speculating that the two are not necessarily compatible. It might be possible to give the public general rules of thumb to help them judge what information is sound, but evidence-based decision making is something even journalists have trouble with, so it could be too much to expect from consumers. Also, changing one behavior does not necessarily leave others intact. Many people compensate for exercise or healthier eating by practicing unhealthier habits in another part of their life, requiring that nutrition science investigate how those behaviors balance out.
Many strategies for changing behavior are abandoned when people do not achieve the desired result, said Jo Anne Bennett of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, rather than being considered one piece in a multidimensional communication strategy. “It can’t be done with a single message,” she said. She also pointed out that most people do not fit the description of “average,” making 2,000 calories a day a poor guide for the majority of consumers.
Attendees agreed that positive messages, emphasizing the beneficial outcomes of healthy weight over the negative effects of obesity, were more likely to encourage consumers. Once people perceive a program and feel that they have the ability to change it, they will seek out solutions.
Reporting during the final plenary session for the breakout group on nanotechnology, Darcy Gentleman, manager of public policy communications at the American Chemical Society, noted that at least some members of the public think of frankenfoods, grey goo, and being poisoned when they think of nanotechnology. The challenge is confronting these negative perceptions with the promise the science offers.
The breakout group proposed creating a large-scale training program for scientists that would teach them how to engage in two-way communications with different audiences. This training program would build on a prominent characteristic of the scientific community: its social nature. Scientists are constantly talking with each other in laboratories, during meetings, and at conferences. If they could learn to communicate as effectively with other audiences as they do with each other, they could leverage their social skills both in person and online.
A training program would create a community of practice among scientists that could compare and evaluate how messages are framed,
how they are presented, and how they are received. Individual scientists could experiment with various forms of communication to explore which approaches work best. Effective approaches then could be leveraged through communication technologies to reach much wider audiences. In this way, the community of practice could cumulatively improve science communications, building on current expertise and past efforts.
One objective of the training program would be to create and empower champions of science communication, including champions who look like the audiences they are addressing. Some scientists, such as Mayim Bialik on the television show “The Big Bang Theory” and Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium, have demonstrated that they can attract very large audiences. In the case of nanotechnology, scientists trained in these fields also would have an understanding of the risks and promise of the technology and could convey that information to nonscientists.
Nanotechnology has a fast growth rate and fast bench-to-bedside transitions, which complicates discussions of social, ethical, and legal issues, explained Dietram Scheufele, the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The science is also highly complex. Even someone with a good grasp of chemistry may not appreciate the many intersections between nanotechnology and biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science, and other fields. The speed, complexity, and breadth of nanotechnology make it an example of “a classic, wicked problem,” Scheufele said, marked by “high policy stakes and high uncertainties.”
When explaining nanotechnology, a convenient approach is to fall back on the wonder of how scientists have learned to make changes at a molecular level. But other aspects of the science are important for nonscientists, and especially policy makers, to know. Understanding the cultural differences and attitudes around how nanotechnology is received is crucial, Scheufele said. Some people are excited about new types of materials, but creating products that do not occur in nature can generate hostility. Without pertinent information about those products, nonscientists may form false assumptions.
How people translate their judgments of risks into attitudes about a specific product can be critical. Making one application of nanotechnology, such as medicine, more prominent in people’s minds can influence the translation process and shape how they receive and even seek out new information. “Some of our research showed a weird paradox,” Scheufele pointed out. “If you talk about applications, people get more excited about the technologies so that you essentially build buy-ins. But they’re less
likely to then want to find out more about the technology and its potential risks. So you essentially create a citizen who cares less about what they should be caring about. [But] if you talk about the risks and describe that these are new materials with new properties, … [people] immediately get a knee-jerk negative response to the technology.”
Nanotechnology is an example of a technology where the expert community and the public are disconnected, Scheufele said. For many other technologies, scientists tend to be more enthusiastic and less pessimistic than the general public. With nanotechnology, in contrast, nanoscientists tend to be more concerned than the public about the potential environmental and human health impacts.
Building partnerships will be an important component of communicating about nanotechnology, particularly between social scientists and bench scientists. Institutionalizing these collaborations will be a way to increase market and political success. However, success may consist of deciding not to pursue particular technology, Scheufele concluded.
Engaging Scientists in Public Communication
Scientists tend to have low levels of public engagement, said Elizabeth Corley, the Lincoln Professor of Public Policy, Ethics, and Emerging Technologies at Arizona State University, and many scientists do not engage in public communication at all. In a recent AAAS survey of scientists across all disciplines, 93 percent rarely or never wrote about their results in a blog, only 3 percent talked frequently to reporters about their research, and just 39 percent talked with nonscientists. However, when asked about their level of interest in engaging with the public, 97 percent said it was an important part of their work.
Why the disconnect? Corley suggested that particular barriers prevent scientists from engaging in public communication, including lack of support, lack of time, and the fact that many scientists are not given credit toward tenure or promotion for non-peer-reviewed publications. She also pointed out that many graduate programs do not teach communication skills. And even scientists who do feel confident in their ability to explain their work may be put off by the well-documented culture clash between journalists and scientists. For example, a 2008 survey of scientists found that 90 percent saw risk of incorrect quotation as a disincentive for talking to the media.
How scientists view the media is correlated with their level of public communication, said Corley. Seeing media coverage as credible and comprehensive encourages scientists to disseminate their results more actively.
In summarizing the challenges to good science communication, Corley focused on content and engagement. Lack of communication training in
graduate school makes for poor skills later in life, preventing some scientists from effectively conveying the important points of their work and what their results could mean. Engagement is the second part of the equation. If scientists do not make public communication a priority, they will not have productive interactions with the media or with the general public. Addressing institutional and cultural barriers along with the negative perception of media attributes would go a long way toward improving the status quo.
Nanotechnology is no different than other sciences when it comes to communication, said Julia Moore, the former director of legislative and public affairs at NSF who now works with the emerging issues team at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Many areas of science involve policy stakes, cultural values, risk values, and variation in public perception. “In the end, the public asks the same questions about every technology, no matter what they perceive as the risks and benefits,” she said. “Who are the winners and who are the losers, because there always will be winners and losers. What are the risks, because nothing is safe? And, most importantly, who gets to decide?”
Moore emphasized the difference between communicating to educate and communicating to influence policy. An in-depth knowledge of nanotechnology is not desirable and potentially not possible with nonscientists, she argued. What matters is what they do with their perceptions. The most important job of a communicator is therefore to build trust. Trust, once established, eases the path from the initial explanation of a technology to eventual policy decisions.
To build this trust, scientists need to consider how their work may function in the wider world. “If you haven’t thought about good regulations that are appropriate to 21st century technologies,” Moore said, “then there is no reason for the public, policy makers, or journalists to trust you at all.”
Many exciting uses for nanotechnology are present in aerospace and medicine, but most consumers encounter the technology in cosmetics, personal devices, and food. The familiarity of these domains is an important tool for science communication.
Moore also lamented the lack of communication training for scientists, but she pointed to examples of scientists who do well without training. Overcoming the reluctance to communicate and the fear of a backlash from the academic world is imperative to build trust with the public, she said. Talking to the media is part of scientific work, and every researcher has a responsibility to gain confidence and competence at explaining not only what they do but the implications of their work.
Regulation and Progress in Nanotechnology
Paul Weiss, director of the California NanoSystems Institute and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, spoke about the opportunity to broaden uptake of nanotechnology. As demonstrated in the United States, Europe, and China, regulation and structure are key factors allowing nanotech to develop. Within that framework, scientists have great potential to connect across disciplines, fostering communication and collaboration.
Weiss used semiconductors as an example of moving technology from the microscale to the nanoscale. The smallest semiconductor structures produced today match the synapse scale of the brain, creating great potential for nanoscientists to work with biologists and neuroscientists on better understanding brain function. Nanoscientists have pushed hard to promote this type of work, contributing to the foundation of the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative announced by President Obama in April 2013.
Nanotechnology generates different attitudes in different countries. In Europe, cosmetics that use nanotechnology are not well received by consumers, so companies try to avoid it. France now has a registry for any product containing nanomaterials, which Weiss called “something to keep an eye on.” In Japan and Korea, products with nanocomponents are more coveted than the alternatives and are more expensive. Nanomaterials are more difficult to test than chemicals, because at least 100,000 now exist. Some risks are fairly well understood, while others need further exploration, he explained. Testing will allow for better regulation and potentially remove some of the fears and negative perceptions around nanotechnology in consumer markets.
Levels of Public Engagement
Audience and panel members discussed how best to navigate the assumptions that the public forms about nanotechnology and what level of education is most effective. Moore, as someone who works to influence policy and regulation, said that her goal is not to explain the science in minute detail but to build general knowledge and encourage the public to advocate for oversight. Efficiency matters when it comes to policy changes, she pointed out. Her experience with a focus group on nanotechnology in cosmetics showed that consumers were unaware of the presence of the technology and overall not happy with the lack of information and lack of regulation.
Others agreed that nanotechnology’s transition from the laboratory to the market went largely unnoticed by consumers. Research has shown that the first product people experience can have a large effect on their
attitudes toward nanotechnology. One audience member pointed out that if scientists do not engage the public and give them accurate information, others will, citing Michael Crichton’s 2002 science fiction novel Prey and the subsequent article published by Prince Charles expressing concern about nanotechnology.
In some cases, speaking to the media before an article goes through peer review can be a good thing, particularly where there is controversy or where risks and benefits are not well known, Corley argued. But peer review is not always slow. The first decision at ACS Nano takes only 12 days, Weiss pointed out, and liaisons with media allow their content to reach a wide audience.
Breakout participants observed that the scientific community should not focus only on policy makers but should take charge of their message and how it reaches the public. Moore expressed disappointment that risk analysis and regulation are still not very advanced and that industry has failed in many cases to be upfront about the presence of nanotechnology in their products and what it means. The group discussed the speed with which development of nanotechnology has outstripped the capacity for testing, and the need to rebalance priorities. Another attendee encouraged scientists to focus not only on communicating risk but also on expressing the potential of nanotechnology. One example is Taxol, a popular anticancer drug, which has greatly reduced side effects when made with a protein nanoparticle.
More education for scientists in how best to communicate is crucial, several participants argued. That training will help researchers address the challenges of talking about their work with the public and with policy makers, which require specific sets of skills. Institutions need to provide media training so the majority of scientists can be comfortable talking about their work to different audiences.
In his closing remarks at The Science of Science Communication II colloquium, AAAS CEO Alan Leshner began by observing that the motivation for public engagement needs to be empowerment, not manipulation. People care about things that affect them personally or locally. Scientists therefore need to find ways to make their research and their messages personally meaningful and adaptable in a local seeing.
The public also needs opportunities to ask scientists questions. People cannot be seen simply as passive receivers of scientific information. They need to interact with scientists to understand and use science effectively.
The professional norms of science need to change so that engagement with the public is rewarded. More and more young scientists are interested
in interacting with the public. The scientific community needs to encourage and support these efforts.
Finally, very few scientists are naturals at interacting with the public. These skills need to be learned, which requires opportunities for scientists to receive training and resources in science communication.