At the beginning of autumn, I completed the last bits and pieces of the work required for my degree in science communication. Since then, I have been preparing myself to enter this rather specific niche. So on December 9th, I went to the 2nd all-island SCI:COM (http://scicom.ie/) conference in Dublin. Although this was a local conference, issues and discussions were essentially global. The main theme of the conference was: How to communicate controversial issues in science?
Under this banner, a wide range of issues of public communication of science was raised and disputed, but it seemed that underneath all discussions there was one main concern: TRUST
Most people around the world acknowledge the importance and contribution of science (and technology) in our everyday lives. Yet public trust in science and scientists seems to be in downfall, particularly when it comes to topics like climate change, childhood vaccination or clinical trials. Such topics have become so controversial in the last few years that they now lead scientists and people who try to communicate science ask themselves:
Why are people not convinced that climate change is real despite the global scientific consensus?
Why people still argue for the link between the MMR vaccine and autism, despite the vast amount of research that proves there is no link?
Why public participation in clinical trials is so low despite this is pretty much the only way to know whether a new treatment is safe and effective?
Where are we doing wrong?
Science communication itself is not only a professional practice of writing and talking about science but also an academic field where scholars try to identify the underlying reasons for problems like the above and come up with solutions. However, the latter is not easy because there is no single cause-to-be-solved in any given problem and the people involved are not machines.
One problem identified is the ‘if we educate the scientifically illiterate public, they will better understand and appreciate what we are doing’ attitude of scientists.
Well, obviously, giving more lectures and statistics and data about vaccines is not helping.
The suggested solution to this still-existing problem is to step down from the ‘ivory tower’ and, as with almost every conflict, open a two-way dialogue. Why? Because we do not make decisions based only on hard evidence. Emotions, past experiences, beliefs, personal values, social norms and a whole range of other factors play a role in our decision-making. Therefore, whoever intends to communicate a scientific issue to the public needs to genuinely find out about these factors and take them as well as public opinion into account.
This ‘understanding or empathizing with your audience’ approach was the key take-home message I got from last week’s conference and in fact, from my degree.
The question that remains: Will scientists and science communicators respond to this call?
Read more about this from science communication scholars Prof. Andrew Maynard and Prof. Dietram A. Scheufele in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/what-does-research-say-about-how-to-effectively-communicate-about-science-70244