Thursday, November 2, 2017

Science Communication: Taking Control of Your Message

Communicating your research to the public is perhaps the most critical aspect of science today, but one most scientists haven’t spent much time thinking about. After years of laboring over a lab bench or mucking in the mud or ducking osprey talons, you’ve diligently checked your spreadsheets, run your models, performed your statistics, and written your technical papers for submission to scientific journals. Your research is published! Now the real work begins. 

Gone are the days where scientists could publish their results then move on to the next experiment. Sure, you attend conferences, read other scientists’ work, and chat chirality over cappuccinos. But we live in an interconnected world where we as scientists have the opportunity- and whether we like it or not, the obligation - to communicate directly to policymakers and the public.  

Face it: There are people out there whose goal is not the same as yours. Scientists can’t assume the facts of their research will be communicated accurately. Newspapers have eliminated most of their in-house science reporting; cable TV thrives on sensational sound-bites, not scientific veracity; and people read fewer books and magazines in this age of Facebook and Twitter. If your work is in an area that is considered controversial (e.g., climate change or clean drinking water or pollution or pretty much anything), there are lobbyists, politicians, and internet trolls who will actively misrepresent your work. 

It is now imperative that we scientists take responsibility for the accurate communication of our science to the public. How do we do that? When we write a journal article we follow a prescribed format for communication: introduction, methods, results, analysis, discussion, conclusions. To communicate to the public we need to do the same, but drop the jargon and dramatically change the emphasis of the writing. 

Instead of burying the lead, state it up front. Start with the main message you want your reader to take away. State the method in one sentence (just say it’s a survey; don't describe the details). Mention key facts that drive the analysis, but don’t rattle off statistics. Put the results in the context of the public’s day to day reality. Mention any uncertainties if they are critical to a broad understanding, but don't overwhelm the public with them. Have you ever seen those drug advertisements in magazine ads? Notice how the one page ad has 2 or 3 pages of small print listing every possible side effect, even the most highly improbable ones. These are not meaningful communication. People tune them out, so don’t hide the real risks with facts that are meaningless to your audience. Be honest always, but be concise. 

When you finish your scientific papers, think about how you can communicate your research to a broader audience.

1) Write a common language summary in addition to your technical abstract.

2) Frame your results within the public's context. If your research shows high pollutant levels in osprey eggs, tell the public how it affects them.

3) Provide the summary to the media. Yes, some labs or agencies provide press releases, but it’s your responsibility to make sure they get it right (and they often don’t).

4) Network with the media, especially the local or regional papers, broadcast media, and influential science communicators. Let them know who they can call.

5) Network with political representatives at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Keep in mind SETAC’s global and tripartite representation. Your job is to make sure all policymakers base their policy-making on accurate science no matter what the party.

6) Watch for misrepresentation of your work by the media, lobbyists, or online fora. Again, it’s your responsibility to rebut those who, intentionally or unintentionally, mislead the public based on your work. [But see below for an important caveat]

7) Present the big picture to the local public at libraries, churches, community centers. Keep it broad and meaningful; don’t bore people with the details of one narrow experiment.

8) Start a blog. This might be the most useful tool for many scientists. Not all of us are Neil deGrasse Tyson with a national television and Twitter following. Our reach is limited, but we can expand that reach by producing a blog that communicates science to a broader audience.
Facebook and Twitter are now where a large percentage of Americans get their “news.” But be careful. Science isn’t done on Facebook, and you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. People are there for entertainment and proselytizing. Instead, set up a Facebook page to transmit information, but don’t waste time arguing with the trolls. 

If you do respond to false statements or myths on the internet – Facebook, blogs, whatever – the first rule is: Don’t put the myth first. Studies have shown that when you debunk myths by first stating the myth, followed by a long explanation of its faults, most people remember the myth and not the debunking. Instead, first provide the take-away fact, then a short statement of the myth, followed by a longer, but still relatively brief, explanation of why the myth is faulty and why the fact is supported.
The bottom line is that you must be prepared to communicate the science to non-scientists after your scientific papers are completed. Follow three basic rules, as noted by John Cook, a science communicator at George Mason University:  

1                         > State clearly your main point/take-home message, and repeat it often.

2              > Avoid back and forth arguments with non-scientists/deniers; it just confuses anyone who is   watching/reading.

3              > Inoculate people against “alternative facts” (i.e., falsehoods) by exposing the tricks used by misinformers, e.g., fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories.

I try to do the latter here on The Dake Page, a blog about science communication. Feel free to set up your own blog to correct misconceptions, or seek out other communication opportunities. The important point is that you, as the scientist, must take control of your message. And that means reaching out to the public and policymakers.

[This article was recently published in the CPRC Newsletter. For more on CPRC, check out their website.]