Simple Tips for Communicating Science

November 16, 2016

Communicating ScienceAs a mom of two and science communicator who uses several forms of media and varied tactics to reach the public, I’ve learned several dos and don’ts of the trade. The following five tips highlight some of what has worked for me as a writer, author, avid social media participant, and science activist who works with scientists and other experts to help my audience sift through heaps of information in the media and marketplace alike. Though each form of communication is different, I’ve found that these five tips hold true whether writing a column, having conversations on Facebook, or even talking to a friend or family member.

Don’t forget the middle ground
While the vast majority of the public is in the middle ground regarding issues like biotechnology, modern farming techniques, and confusing food labels in the marketplace, the most vocal minority are mired in evidence-scarce ideology. This vocal minority is very influential to the middle ground. Flooding the public with confusing, scary misinformation via propaganda groups disguised as consumer advocacy, they make the “credible wheat” challenging for the average person to distinguish from “misinformation chaff.”

This middle ground is part of what drives science communicators to go head-to-head with loud science denialist voices. Remember that while you may never sway the most vocal minority, challenging them is worthwhile. The middle ground is watching.

Don’t throw facts
In matters of science, evidence and citations are king. For those mired in the science world, the knee-jerk reaction is to throw citations at unscientific concerns. If someone is worried about pesticides or preservatives, it’s tempting to throw out every single study and argument to show that the substances are safe when used correctly. After all, if someone is misinformed, information should fix the problem, right? But presenting evidence without cultural context isn’t effective. If someone is afraid or distrustful, be cognizant and respectful of those feelings. Marriage of facts while addressing context isn’t always easy, but it’s important to wield facts without treating them as ammunition.

Be nuanced
A common communication mistake is making sweeping positive statements without any nuance. Take the overarching sentiment that genetic modification is a panacea for feeding the world and healing the earth. Without careful discussion of realities around technologies like genetic engineering, the communicator sacrifices accuracy and loses credibility and trust.

But not too nuanced
At the same time, keep your audience in mind. Speaking with too much scientific detail for a lay audience is an easy trap to fall into, especially for scientists. Always consider the delicate balance between not making sweeping statements and getting too technical, or risk losing trust or seeming condescending. An example I like to use: There are situations where it’s better to explain that genetic engineering is no more or less inherently risky than traditional breeding techniques, whereas sometimes it’s best to say that GMOs are safe.

Beware the misinformation hydra
Each popular purveyor of bad information is like a head on an immortal misinformation hydra. When vanquishing anti-GMO, anti-pesticide, or chemophobic sentiment, or taking a science denialist food movement leader down a notch, remember that while the objective is noble, another head will always grow back. The corresponding long-term objective is perhaps as important as the short-term goal of debunking bad information. We need to arm enough of the public with misinformation radars so they can sense unscientific rhetoric before it can influence their choices. 

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two and communicator based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her co-authored book, “The Fear Babe:  Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House,” examines some of the most common food myths of our time and why they proliferate despite solid evidence against them. You can like her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter.

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