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.

References

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.

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3 comments so far

  1. Yvette Leong on

    Thank you, Beau, for this insightful post. I would like to commend Nisbet and Scheufele for their maturity. The Science vs. Religion debate, in my opinion, is both childish and a waste of an opportunity to connect with rational people and to meet their needs with what science is discovering. After all, isn’t science communication about making science accessible to people, about dialogue, and about being open to giving and receiving new knowledge? Understanding the perspectives of your target audience is as important as understanding the science we are communicating – this should then be coupled with a respect for their values and viewpoints. Having empathy is certainly a wise piece of advice I shall keep in mind for my future science communication endeavors.

  2. ushachandra on

    Fantastic post Beau. I agree with Yvette about science communication is about making science accessible to people. This fact comes in handy when science communication efforts need empirical evidence to work on something or improve in any part of a finding. One cannot just come out in the blue laying out his facts without a back up.

    While reading this post, the scientist practitioner model came into mind. Basically it is a model used to understand the scientific principles behind every discipline and these findings provide the basis for professional practice.

    I will take away the good knowledge of empathy. We can only understand an individual when we are in their shoes. Thus, in order to meet demands or requests, seeing views from other peoples will be a great idea. This approach will then make a scientist practitioner and retriever contented.

  3. Beau Gamble on

    Thanks for your comments, guys. Sorry Yvette, I just realised my response is about three months late 😛

    I agree — the Science Vs. Religion debate is definitely childish. I’m strongly atheist but I can see how science and religion could be integrated into someone’s beliefs (unless the bible or other religious texts are interpreted strictly literally, which would kind of make science and religion mutually exclusive).

    I hadn’t heard of the ‘scientist practitioner model’ but I can see how it could utilise the empathy idea to make professional practice more effective!


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