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.
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.