Science Communication should wear its Heart more on its Sleeve

Recently, I was a co-author of a paper published in the journal Environmental Communication examining the differences and similarities between science communication and environmental communication.

The paper covers many aspects, from the historical development of each field of study to overlaps in scope and differences in focus. However, there was one point that emerged from our review that seemed more salient to me than all the rest; at least as it applies to those of us who purport to be science communicators.

Almost all science communication is concerned with the transfer of knowledge about issues involving science and technology. Yet, much like the discipline we report on, science communicators tend to adopt a position of neutral objectivity towards the science itself. We communicate the facts – be they about climate change, genetic modification or whatever – rather than trying to persuade people to act in a certain way as a consequence of those facts.

By contrast, the whole raison d’être of the environmental communicator is to protect the environment. As a consequence, the communication is rarely neutral. It seeks to persuade the audience to adopt behaviours, based upon the facts, that will enhance the prospects of protecting the environment.

Given the threats to the world we live in, which one way or another can all be laid at the footsteps of science – the aforementioned climate change is an example, but it could just as easily be the disappearance of frogs, or terrorism in France, or the availability of clean water (and we’re not talking Perrier here) – it strikes me as not enough simply to inform.

In the 2003 landmark paper by Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer, the authors proposed a definition for science communication that is predicated on the notion that there must always be an outcome for any science communication and that will involve an “action, feeling, movement or change” elicited by the communication. I subsequently pooh-poohed their contention of an “outcomes-type view of science communication” in a paper published in 2010. While I was right in a pedantic sense (it is, after all, possible to communicate science without any such outcomes), I realise now that I was wrong in terms of the value of science communication.

In truth, the Burns et al position was based upon the need to have pre-defined outcomes in order to be able to measure the effectiveness of communication or determine, even, whether communication had occurred. It reminded me of the situation I had experienced as a researcher studying animal behaviour: you could only tell whether communication had taken place between two animals if the “receiving animal” displayed some response to the animal performing a behaviour; BUT, you could not say that communication had not taken place if the receiving animal displayed no response. That is, it is possible for an animal to receive a signal but choose not to respond or take action. Similarly, humans may receive and understand a piece of science communication but choose to ignore it or not respond.

So, jumping on my high-horse, Pedantic Pony, I had criticised Sue Stoklmayer and her co-authors for not making that distinction clear, for not making it clear that it was possible to communicate science without discernible outcomes.

What a twat I was! Irrespective of any argument about measuring effectiveness, science communication is rarely worth doing unless we can effect not just understanding but change. We should take a leaf out of the books of our environmental communication brethren and invest in outcomes-based communication. We should permit ourselves to put down the cloak of neutrality and wear our hearts on our sleeves.

I well remember reading the book, Science and Government, by the chemist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow where he confronts all the destruction that technology and science has wrought upon the world by saying, “Men of goodwill should make an effort to understand how the world ticks; it is the only way to make it tick better.”

I would paraphrase that for science communicators: men and women of goodwill should make an effort to get the public to understand how the world ticks and to act upon that; it is the only way to make it tick better!

2 thoughts on “Science Communication should wear its Heart more on its Sleeve

  1. I like your new view points here.. Environmental communication , according to my understanding, has it’s roots supporting environmental movements. Journalists and writers assumed a position more readily taking up what environmental scientists put forward and helped as mediators of change. I believe science communication can assume that style when the need is there to do so..


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