Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Can communication strategy lessons be distilled from alcohol marketing problems?

by Alan Gill


Alcohol advertising is beginning to receive a lot of attention from governments. It seems as though every week there is an article in our major newspapers detailing the effect of excessive alcohol consumption on our body. Most health pundits reckon the problem could be solved by putting restrictions on the advertisements that beverage manufacturers produce.

Petra Meier suggests in a paper published last year in the journal “Addiction” that marketing researchers have got it all wrong when it comes to predicting the effects of advertising restrictions. These marketing researchers are trying to find evidence that the British government’s policies are working and that excessive alcohol consumption is on the decline. The problem with their techniques, Meier argues, is that the researchers don’t understand how current and new marketing messages are processed by the brain, nor do they understand the timescales that they work on and the magnitude of the response they illicit. This can represent a significant hurdle if a new policy is introduced but in evaluating its efficacy, the timescale of the study is too short for the policy changes to have any effect. This result would paint a picture of bad policy rather than bad evaluation.

The answer, according to Meier, is researching the effects that are expected to be observed from advertising changes and documenting their development. That would mean assessing how they are processed – consciously or subconsciously – and whether it is trying to encourage a sale or something more like behaviour change. The timescales for these different results are quite varied and depend a lot on what the marketing companies do to get around advertising restrictions, so there are a lot of unknowns. What is important is understanding how these messages are understood by viewers and how long it can take for those messages to translate into actions. For example, a policy might discourage film makers from portraying epic drinking sessions as social events, though it might take years before this subconscious message seeps in. Studying its effects after 3 months would be somewhat useless.

If you remove the alcohol marketing side of this article, you start to see some really good suggestions for evaluating communication strategies. Doing some research to find out how much people know about an issue after the implementation of your strategy is great, but it won’t mean anything unless you have something to compare it to. That part is easy enough as there’s no sense creating a strategy to change community behaviour if it doesn’t need tchanging, or even if you don’t know how much to change it. The difficult part is understanding how long it will take for the message to sink in and how long the evaluation period should be.  After all, there’s no point evaluating your strategy if you’re not going to give it the best chance of showing positive results.

How important do you see evaluation to be? How much emphasis would you put on it as part of your communication strategy?

Reference: Meier, P 2010, ‘Alcohol marketing research: the need for a new agenda’, Addiction, 106, pp 466-471

Values Affect Our Behaviour?

by Jiunn Yi Ooi

I believe we are all aware that our natural environment is being harmed by our actions. This is becoming quite a concern among us. We can ask the 3 W questions in this problem. How our actions harm the natural environment? What can we do to save our natural environment? Why do we need to solve this problem?

Activities such as deforestation, agricultural practices (usage of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals) , transportation, etc. Human behaviour has been the main reason causing harm to the natural environment.  Therefore a numbers of studies have been done to examine these problems, and the link between values and environmental attitudes.

Schultz et al. reported the relationship between the values and environmental attitudes in six countries. The reason for running these studies is that  the values and the various cultures provide a lens through which our understanding of environmental problems is framed. It also provides an aspect of these problems concerning us, and the solutions that seem reasonable and will be effective at addressing those human actions.  The valued objects are oriented around three basic sources: self, other people, or all living things. There are 3 environmental attitudes where it is the concern about the environment in different levels. An egoistic attitude is at a personal level, the social-altruistic attitude is for all people and lastly biospheric attitudes are based on all living species including animals and plants.

Through our thoughtless actions, we have caused an irreversible damage upon Mother Nature. Negative effects are such as endangered wildlife, greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer. Most environmental degradation is not immediately tangible. Things like nuclear radiation or the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cannot be perceived. Even changes like the loss of species, which is noticeable, usually go unnoticed by the layperson. Many animals have gone into extinction without us realizing. The Tecopa pupfish. Heard of this? Neither have I. This apparently is a native fish in the USA and it was declared extincted in 1981.

It can be said that cultures in small, highly populated countries such as the Netherlands, tend to be more resource conscientious, as compare to countries that are larger and resource-rich. Richer countries such as the USA were found to have a far greater negative environmental impact than poorer countries such as Brazil. But this does not mean that the poorer countries lack of environmental concern. I believe they have intention to act environmentally, however they lack the resources to do so.

In the study, it was found that people’s behaviours towards the environment have a very strong correlation with their cultural norms. Countries that are more developed tend to care more about themselves than other people. To be honest, I was surprised to find that this is the case. I thought that being a developed country, they can now use their resources on other things, like trying to improve the environment, making the environment one of their top priorities.



Schultz, P., Gouveia, V., Cameron, L., Tankha, G., Schmuck, P., & Franék, M. (2005). Values and their relationship to environmental concern and conservation behavior. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 36(4), 457.

Risky Business: The element of mistrust in risk communication

By Nicola Bawden

Trust is commonly emphasised as one of the most important elements in effective risk communication. In matters of health and environmental risks where consensus is sought through stakeholder negotiation, mistrust commonly exists between parties, which hinders communication.

Leiss (1995) argues that all parties have valid reasons for mistrusting the motives or behaviours of others, based on historical experience. He uses the analogy of a poker game in analysing the process of decision making in risk management. He features a group of players, the stakeholders, representing strongly differing interests at the negotiating table:

“…in which bluffing, raising the ante, and calling the perceived bluffs of others are matters of survival.”

Bluffing is undertaken to deliberately deceive your opponent, an act attributed to seemingly untrustworthy behaviour. Such a tactic becomes applicable, however, as communication of risk management can similarly be viewed as a “game of chance”, given the uncertainties associated with risk.

During negotiation of risk matters, participants representing different interests each have conflicting evaluations of the same situation. Therefore, in order to advance their own interests, they are motivated employ “dirty” tactics. For example, “environmentalist” organisations typically assert a risk adverse perspective, such as rejecting large-scale development projects. In this instance, their claim of an unacceptable risk should be regarded by other parties as a bluff.

A more complex case study illustrating these tactics is given from the 1990s involving the lumber industry in Canada using antisapstains (fungicides) to control mould. Following labour union pressure over occupational health and environmental impacts from using the antisapstain, the lumber industry was forced to discontinue using a compound which proved excellent as an antisapstain agent. Tension rose between the stakeholders over the best alternative compound to be used, in assessing the negative environmental and health risks against the importance of the industry to the economy, resulting in a meeting to try and resolve their stalemate.

After much deliberation and bluffing among the parties, a majority agreement was signed and accepted as “consensus”, resulting in the implementation of the recommended changes. Leiss goes on to conclude that given the right circumstances such as stakeholder negotiation, acceptable risk management outcomes for society are possible. In the age of globalisation, however, does this remain a realistic goal, to get everyone around the one table and somehow breakdown the barriers of mistrust to reach a consensus without an officiating body?

I believe Leiss’ arguments need to be put into context, as his paper was written sixteen years ago. For example, he refers to practices which abuse public trust such as concealing relevant information. Today, improved technology and the internet have made information much more readily accessible to the public, and anything hidden generally has a way of becoming exposed, these days sooner rather than later.

Given that each stakeholder generally has a hidden agenda and is acting in their own interests, the dilemma that citizens face becomes clear in trying to determine who and what to believe when making decisions.


Leiss W. 1995. “Down and dirty” The use and abuse of public trust in risk communication. Risk Analysis 15(6):685-692.

Pro-Environmentalist Anyone?

by Xue Ni Koh



Earth hour.

The last Saturday of the third month at 8.30pm, lights will switch off all around the globe, for this one hour.

That’s tonight. Earth hour’s tonight.

It first started in one single city, Sydney. What started as a way to bring the community to acknowledge the importance of conserving Mother Earth’s natural resources, became a global symbol of hope and movement for change. In 2010, Earth Hour has created history as the biggest voluntary action yet, with 128 countries and more than 4500 cities.

So what makes people switch their lights off? Why do they care? What motivated them to act environmentally? Why do they go through the trouble of sitting in the dark for 60 minutes? Would their action go beyond these 60 minutes?

Over the last 30 years, psychologists and sociologists have been searching for the answer to these questions, or in particular, the answer to the questions: “Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?” By “pro-environmental behaviour”, it means the behaviour that consciously seeks to minimize the negative impact of one’s actions on the natural and built world (e.g. minimize resource and energy consumption, reduce waste production). However, the answers to those questions are extremely complex and cannot be visualised through one single framework.

Kollmuss and Agyeman had analysed the factors that were found to have some influence, positive or negative, on pro-environmental behaviour.

A few of the factors they mentioned were external factors, mainly the institutional, economic, social and cultural factors. I personally thought the institutional factors have quite an influence on people’s decision and behaviour towards the environment. As Kollmuss and Agyeman mentioned, many pro-environmental behaviours can only take place if the necessary infrastructures are provided, infrastructures such as recycling bins or public transport. I mean, if you had the choice, would you take a bus with broken seats and no air-conditioning, or would you rather be comfortable in your own car?

Of course, there are also the internal factors: motivation, environment knowledge, awareness, values, attitudes, emotion, locus of control, responsibilities and priorities. In my opinion, these are the true factors that strongly influence a pro-environmental behaviour. But, how often do people say “I shall bike to work today, even though it’ll rain.”? It was proposed that people choose the pro-environmental behaviours that demand the least cost. People who care about the environment tend to engage in activities such as recycling, but they do not necessarily engage themselves in activities that are more costly and inconvenient, such as driving less.

Barriers, these are the ones stifling one’s pro-environmental behaviour. Kollmuss and Agyeman hypothesized that primary motives, such as altruistic and social values, are often covered up by the more immediate selective values, which revolves around one’s own needs.

So is this why people act environmentally? Are these factors really encouraging pro-environmental behaviours? Or are these just causing people to act pro-environmentally without doing it out of environmental concern? Whereby, you are taking the bus solely because you do not want to spend time finding a parking spot, and then having to pay for a parking ticket. What is more, by taking the bus, you get to save petrol too. This, I think, is not a pro-environmental behaviour. You do not say, “I shall take the bus to save Mother Nature!” Ecological economists like to take advantage of this fact. By imposing taxes on environmentally harmful activities, people will automatically search for alternatives. For example, in countries with high gasoline tax, people tend to drive significantly less. From this, some cautioned that such unconscious environmental behaviour can easily be changed to a more unsustainable pattern because it is not based on fundamental values.


However, not all is bad. We can still make changes. As Mahatma Gandhi had said,

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

I’ll be switching off my lights tonight. Will you?




Kollmuss, A and J Agyeman. 2002. Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8(3): 239- .

Integrity will prevail over trust lost

By Christine Keong

Occupational safety is and has always been a top priority for workers in high-risk organisations where they are more vulnerable to risks including physical harm and injury. Workplaces do set out safety protocols and measures but essentially, they need to be followed to be effective and to ensure that accidents are minimal. In other words, workers have to be committed to their own safety by adhering to the safety protocols and measures that have been set out. This commitment and genuine intention towards their own safety is achieved by gaining their trust; Workers need to trust and have confidence that the organisation has their interests and safety as a number one concern. However many organisations have found that trust is difficult to earn but distrust is also just as easily gained. Therefore risk communicators need to tread carefully by having a knowledge of the factors that can help them gain, maintain and then strengthen that trust but also know about the factors contributing to a loss of trust.

Open communication between both management and workers has long been the  recommended strategy to gain, maintain and build trust. It involves a two-way forum where risk communicators present their current safety processes to workers and by also listening and being receptive to the occupational safety concerns of workers, without shifting the blame to them for any safety accidents that have occurred.

While open communication can be effective in gaining trust, it can also backfire as Conchie and Burns (2008) have found in their study. A high-risk organisation that practiced open communication saw a lost in trust when negative risk information was given to workers. This trust asymmetry effect can be attributed to a “negativity bias” where individuals are more affected by negative information than positive information due to a greater confidence that the negative information is true. The trust asymmetry effect is further amplified through a “confirmatory bias” when workers already have existing impressions or opinions of an organisation. Even if positive risk information is released, workers who already possess a distrust of the organisation they are working for will still distrust the positive information given.

That said, the authors found that even though trust was reduced in face of negative risk information, a lack of open communication created even more and stronger distrust among workers. Thus, although trust may potentially be lost when negative risk information is given, open communication still needs to be practiced. Organisations should focus on the circumstances of the negative information and then propose steps to handle and deal with those circumstances that have arisen.

So while trust seems easily lost, organisations should not be deterred from pursuing good and open communication with their workers. Essentially workers are human who will respect integrity and trust can be earned again.  Like Eudora Welty, a 1973 Pulitzer Prize Winner once said,

Integrity can be neither lost nor concealed nor faked nor quenched nor artificially come by nor outlived, nor, I believe, in the long run, denied.

Reference: Conchie, S. M., & Burns, C. (2008). Trust and risk communication in high-risk organizations: A test of principles from social risk research. Risk Analysis, 28(1), 141-149. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2008.01006.x

Public trust and food-related risks – is the answer staring us right in the face?

By Brogan Micallef

Why are some individuals and organisations trusted as sources of risk information whilst others are not? This is one of the major questions that is commonly dealt with in risk communication. It is particularly important to have the public’s trust if you are communicating a food-related (or any kind of) risk because people are extremely unlikely to change their behaviour if they don’t trust you.

Generally speaking, it has been demonstrated that the public distrusts sources that are seen to be biased or self-serving, or have a vested interest in a particular point of view. For example, even though KFC says they use real Steggles chicken, I often find myself wondering if they really do, mostly because the ads are run by KFC themselves. Although I generally trust Steggles, do I in this instance? Not really, because they have a vested interest in KFC.

Although the KFC debate isn’t a food-related ‘risk’, what about the debates that are? High fat diets, using microwaves and genetic engineering have all been reported in the media. If the public don’t trust the information source, they could be damaging their health with a high fat diet, or industry could lose out on the GM debate.

Interestingly, Frewer et al. (1995) found that the most highly trusted sources are seen to be

“…moderately accountable to others, to have a partial vested interest in promoting a particular view, and to be reasonably self-protective. Total absence of such characteristics allows for sensationalization (sic) of information.” (pg. 483, emphasis mine)

As the author’s realised, this does not support the results of previous studies. It also demonstrates that the relationship between public trust and the source of information is much more complex than originally thought. Too much vested interest and the source is biased. Too little accountability and you’re not being honest. You have to get it just right. Remind you of Goldilocks and her porridge dilemma?  To further complicate the matter, Frewer et al. stated that different characteristics apply to different information sources. Not only do you have to get it right, it seems that the balance changes with the situation. The medical profession needs to have a vested interest in public welfare, but GM producers promoting their product? That’s a bit iffy. They’re biased aren’t they?

Although it has been argued that the way to overcome the trust-distrust barrier is to increase the scientific literacy of the public, the scale and level to which this would have to be achieved is unreasonable. Not everybody has the capability, opportunity or interest in becoming an expert in all new aspects of science and technology. The study revealed that

“…scientists, medical sources, radio and consumer organisations were all named as trusted…sources. However, they were infrequently named by respondents as important sources of food-related information.” (pg. 475, emphasis mine)

Isn’t the answer right in front of us? Perhaps it is easier to use institutions and individuals that are already trusted, than for distrusted groups to try to improve their level of public trust. We’ve seen how complicated it is to get that balance right. Won’t people always be concerned about the ‘private agenda’ of the government or a particular industry? It seems a waste to not exploit already trusted sources with regards to food-related risk communication. Who knows what might be achieved?

Reference: Frewer, L. J., C. Howard., D. Hedderley, and R. Shepherd. 1995. What determines trust in information about food-related risks? Underlying psychological constructs. Risk Analysis 16(4): 473-486.

Denialism does not start with D! (Although, in another language, this could be true.)

By Yvette Leong

In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, John Worthing is confronted by his fiancée Gwendolen regarding his real name (he has been till this moment masquerading as ‘Ernest’). His reply?

“I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked. But my name certainly is John. It has been John for years.” (Act II, Part 2)

Human beings seem to have an unfortunate knack for denying things that are true, or could likely be true. Denialism may be motivated by greed, fear, philosophy, beliefs and values, or even a person’s quirkiness of thought. But what is denialism? Is it simply ignoring facts or lying? Diethelm and McKee, in their Viewpoint article, used the following definition:

“…the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” (p. 2, emphases mine)

The danger of such a manipulative and negative attitude towards scientific knowledge can be demonstrated by the public health examples given by Diethelm and McKee. HIV causes AIDS – this is well established on the basis of scientific evidence. However, the South African government under Mbeki denied this causative relationship, to the detriment of thousands of people who were HIV-positive, and their children.

As such, Diethelm and McKee propose that scientists should be able to recognize the tactics used by denialists and respond appropriately (by uncovering these tactics in the eyes of the public). Five tactics of denialism were identified

1)   Creation of conspiracy
2)   Use of fake experts
3)   Selectivity of information sources
4)   Creation of impossible expectations of the capabilities of research
5)   Use of misinterpretation and myths

The authors conclude that scientists should be aware and wary of denialism. Scientists should also address attitudes rather than the subject under debate (since under their working definition, no debate exists). While I fully agree with these, I cannot help feeling that Diethelm and McKee have presented a rather biased view. The authors give the impression that ideas can be either fact or fiction, and give no room for being open to the values and attitudes of others. Their tone is almost condescending when describing the beliefs of Christians with regards to the creation of the world. As scientists, we cannot ignore (indeed, deny!) the role of culture, tradition, and faith in human societies – labelling people as “denialists” just because they subscribe to a particular worldview is disrespectful and serves only to fuel the negative feelings these people may have towards science. This in turn hinders important, even life-saving, communication. As the title of this post suggests, an idea from one place may mean something completely different (and therefore perceived as threatening or ridiculous) to someone in another part of the world. Good scientists would not dismiss these views, but with professionalism and empathy, put these views through proper tests.

We would also do well to remember that science is a dynamic discipline. Even if there is scientific consensus and a treasure-trove of hard evidence now, something may be discovered along the way that modifies or even completely changes our knowledge of the subject. There are countless examples of this, from the classification of life forms to medical discoveries – this is what makes science exciting! To close our minds to other possibilities is to deny the very basis of scientific inquiry, which I hope we will never do.

Keep science exciting – don’t deny possibilities!


Image from:


Diethelm, P & McKee, M 2009, ‘Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?’, European Journal of Public Health, vol. 19, no. 1, 2–4, pp. 2-4.

What’s the norm?

By Giselle Alliex

In attempt to mobilise action against an environmental problem, communicators often incorporate normative information in their persuasive appeals. These messages can be either effective or ineffective because they can normalise either desirable or undesirable conduct.

There are two types of social norms that affect human motivation: the injunctive norm and the descriptive norm. Injunctive norms express how the majority of people feel about a certain issue. For example, most people think that wasting water is bad. Descriptive norms describe what is done rather than what should be done.

Cialdini outlines the situations in which the use of normative messages in behaviour change campaigns can backfire to increase, rather than decrease, the incidence of the problem behaviour. The message that the Petrified Forest National Park(Arizona):

Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”

displays the negative power of a descriptive norm as it convey’s the message that ‘everyone is taking it’.  Cialdini and his colleagues did an experiment which involved creating signs and aligning both descriptive and injunctive norms. On the sign, the descriptive norm read

“Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”

The injunctive norm read:

Please don’t remove petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”

Interestingly, theft rates dropped with the new signage – 7.92% vs 1.67%.

Only by aligning descriptive norms (what people typically do) with injunctive norms (what people typically approve or disapprove) can one enhance the power of normative appeals. Communicators who cannot see the difference between these two types of norms jeopardise their persuasive efforts.

If the injunctive norm is in conflict with the descriptive norm then bad behaviours will be encouraged. As an example, let’s take littering. An anti-litter norm may be highlighted with the norm stated on a sign. Descriptive norms affect behaviour by providing information about which behaviour is most common in such a situation. For example, a littered environment illustrates that there is a breakdown of norms and values and will therefore enhance littering.  Cialdini notes that:

“people can be steered into criminal behaviour simply by tinkering with their social surroundings and if you know which variables to change within an environment, you can make anti social behaviour spread like wild-fire”.

Injunctive-norm information in a persuasive message is more successful when it is associated with a descriptive norm that is in alignment rather than in conflict with that message. For example, a sign drawing attention to the anti-litter norm is more powerful in reducing litter when placed in a non-littered setting than when it is placed in a pre-littered setting.

More and more environmental interpreters understand the importance of descriptive norms. You can still explain that a particular activity is happening. You can explain that this activity harms us and our earth. Just do not imply that participating in this harmful activity is the social norm.



Cialdini, R. 2003. Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 105- 109.

Beliefs define our thoughts on embryonic stem cell research – no matter how hard the media try

By Anke van Eekelen

One of the endeavours of science communication is to better inform the public on controversial issues, which typically arise from unprecedented scientific progress made. A good example of such a heated topic of debate in life sciences is the use of embryonic stem cells to develop potential cures for thus far fatal diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

You would hope that the public’s attitude towards an issue like this is steered by the availability of various media sources to update each and everyone in lay language on the state of the art of stem cell research and its clinical implications. A frequently used theory in public opinion research, referred to as the scientific literacy model, implies that being more informed drives a change in behaviour. In the context of embryonic stem cell research, this assumption would predict increased public support for their use in the lab and clinic, the more media covers basic knowledge on the topic.

However, a fairly recent study by Ho, Brossard and Scheufele from The University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA, shows the opposite. Regardless of more knowledge becoming available via TV news reports and newspaper articles, values in life and moral thoughts on the issue weighed heavier in the public’s opposing stand on embryonic stem cell use.

Ho and co-workers undertook a longitudinal study on how opinion formation on embryonic stem cell research was shaped between 2002 and 2005. What sets their study apart is the use of a national panel survey of the American people; an ideal way of collecting data from the same individuals at various time points during the study period. This type of approach is essential to study causality between religious and ideological views, mass media use, scientific literacy and public attitude towards stem cell research.

There is no denial that exposure to science news on TV or in the newspaper positively influenced the attitude towards progress in stem cell research. Apparently, a focus in the campaign for embryonic stem cell use on celebrities, like actor Michael J. Fox (a famous Parkinson’s patient actively supporting better clinical outcomes; and the son of past president Ronald Reagan (who died from Alzheimer’s in 2004), was a strategic winner. Personification of the problem may have opened the eyes of the public to the benefits of legalizing its use to the quality of life of those affected by devastating but potentially treatable diseases.

More striking though was their observation that “firmly held long-term beliefs” of highly religious or conservative nature, seem to act as filters “to override the potentially positive effect of science knowledge”.

This outcome rightly argues for more research into the interaction of effects of value predisposition, mass media and general scientific knowledge on the public’s attitude of interest. And maybe even life experience (bringing the need to move forward on a controversial issue closer to the individual) should be included as an alternative determinant of public attitude and behaviour towards this kind of ethically challenging issues in science?


Ho, SS, Brossard, D and Scheufele, DA. 2008. Effects of value predispositions, mass media used, and knowledge on public attitudes towards embryonic stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 20: 171- 192.

What’s next for science communication? Stretching our imaginations

By Beau Gamble

One definition of empathy is to put yourself in another’s shoes — to stretch your imagination and genuinely try to understand that person’s perspective. The theme of empathy — although never explicitly stated — is evident throughout Nisbet and Scheufele’s (2009) paper, ‘What’s next for science communication?’

Traditionally, many communication initiatives have begun with the premise that a lack of ‘science literacy’ is the central culprit driving societal conflict over science. Or in other words, that too many people know too little about science, and they make irrational decisions when it comes to science-related policy.

Nisbet and Scheufele use recent social science research to oppose this view. They state that science literacy has “only a limited role in shaping public perceptions and decisions.” Put simply, they don’t blame an individual’s lack of knowledge for societal conflicts, but rather the way the knowledge is communicated.

“Science communication efforts need to be based on a systematic empirical understanding of an intended audience’s existing values, knowledge and attitudes, and their interpersonal and social contexts.”

The way I see it, Nisbet and Scheufele are advocating for a sort of ‘scientific empathy’, if I can call it that — having a deep understanding of the target audience based on empirical data from market research. Nisbet and Scheufele go into great detail in their paper, but one short example to illustrate their point is the science vs. religion (or evolution vs. creationism) debate.

Science vs. Religion. (Photo: Susan Soosay via flickr.)

The failure of communicators in this debate is evident in the title itself: ‘science vs. religion’. It implies that truth lies only on one side or the other, that science and religion are mutually exclusive.

Leading the argument for evolution and atheism is Professor Richard Dawkins. Nisbet and Scheufele write, “Dawkins argues that religion is comparable to a mental virus… that religious education is a form of child abuse.” The authors propose that such claims only fuel the argument, threatening people’s religious identity with science, without truly working towards increased understanding.

There’s a better way to go about it. Science communicators can frame their message to “effectively engage audiences who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum.”

The best communication strategy in the science vs. religion debate has been to highlight the importance of evolution for social progress; for example, defining evolutionary science as the “modern building block for advances in medicine and agriculture.”

Instead of attacking audiences, this strategy connects with audiences. A devout Christian who believes in creationism won’t suddenly accept evolution when a fundamental part of his or her identity is being criticised. But the same person might understand the importance of evolutionary science when it’s promoted as a keystone to modern medicine.

This empathic approach — truly putting ourselves in the shoes of the audience — means framing a topic in the context of something meaningful and relatable, in this case social progress. Such an approach is surely more effective than downright provocation.


Nisbet, M and Scheufele, D 2009, What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1767–1778.