January 7, 2019
By Puspita Insan Kamil

How on Earth do we communicate science to the public?

The goal of science communication is not agreement, but fewer, better disagreements.

Baruch Fischhoff

The sustainability of our world depends on all of us – the daily decisions of 7.7 billion people. To help people make educated decisions that contribute to a more sustainable world, we need to make science approachable. Step 1: Push scientific research out of the hallowed halls of academia and into public discourse.

Modern science impacts all of our lives. But as science becomes increasingly complex, the question of how to communicate it becomes ever more pressing. Scientists face many barriers in communicating their findings, but Nancy Baron argues, they have an ethical obligation to do so. Because without effective science communication, proper scientific information doesn’t make its way to the public. People are left to make choices without scientific reasoning and research – choices that take a heavy toll on our environment.

For us as science communicators, the question is: how? How does an agroforestry scientist explain complex modeling analysis to predict accurate maize crop yields in a way that a non-specialist will understand? How can those conclusions be translated into tangible recommendations that help us make smarter, more sustainable decisions? How do we convince the one-third of Americans that don’t believe climate change is caused by human activities that science says otherwise?

The “rocket science” problem

Scientific knowledge, and the methodologies used to discover it, can appear bafflingly complicated to the layperson – so much so that we use “rocket science” as a standin for “impossibly hard to understand”.

In an effort to communicate their findings precisely, scientists make generous use of heady jargon and complex language. It can feel like an injustice to water down the details of scientific findings to make them more palatable to the public. Proper science requires rigorous and careful processes – explanations are rarely straightforward… But stop there. This mindset is what’s holding us back from communicating science simply. This is what I got into science communication to challenge.

The gap between science and daily lives

People reject science because the image of science is alienating. It seems removed from the practical considerations of our daily lives, and scientists often give the impression that they are different from common people.

This is a dangerous mindset, because it’s where the rift between science and daily decisions begins. If people don’t understand the devastating environmental impacts of microplastic waste and how they contribute to it, how can we expect them to make the effort to avoid microplastic products? Lengthy articles in scientific journals rarely reach anyone outside of the science department. In the absence of more accessible communication, valuable insights go unheeded by the general public. This is where effective science communication comes in: making sure science is put to use in decision-making.

Generally, the public shows little interest in science. Only 15% of Europeans today say they are interested in science. One major reason for this limited popularity is the time investment required. Scientific articles, as well as “crash courses” on YouTube, seem to grow longer by the day. But how many people take the time to read those when the internet is flooded with funny cat videos and other more accessible media?

Science communications 2.0

To stay competitive, science communicators need to create compelling and engaging materials that are trustworthy at the same time. If we want science to be widely applied, we need to transform its majestic complexity into digestible takeaways. Science needs to be beautiful, easy to understand, and fun. At the same time, it needs to show the stakes involved.

Effective science communications, according to Baruch Fischhoff, must illuminate the benefits, risks, and other costs of daily decisions, thereby empowering people to make informed choices. Our work for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is one example of translating numbers into compelling artwork to reveal how small protected areas really are and how they work. These infographics were the result of a months-long process, through a number of iterations to strike a balance between the design imperative and the scientific arguments in favour of MPAs. Those are used by WWF to demonstrate to decision-makers how MPAs function, helping them to break down common misconceptions.

Despite the growing buzz about science communication, implementation lags behind. Where can we find the basic do’s and don’ts of communicating science to lay people? That is what I went to Singapore to find out.

Sharing science through art

Hosted by the Faculty of Science of National University of Singapore, the Asia-Pacific Science Communication Conference was the first of its kind. In addition to bringing together science communicators from around the world, the event showcased best practices, current knowledge and trends in science communication, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

The key takeaway of the conference was that art and science should be inseparable. Art will give science a soul: a sense of humour and intrigue. By collaborating with designers or artists to communicate their research, scientists can spark unprecedented public attention and engagement. In one case, a Japanese scientist dramatically increased visitor numbers at his exhibition by using manga characters to share his findings. A simple creative shift in our approach to communicating science can make all the difference.

Science communication is a challenge for scientists and artists alike. To leverage art in the service of science:

  1. Scientists should stop thinking that science is exclusive to them. This is a crucial starting point – shared investment in creating science content that a wide range of people can engage with.
  2. Designers should seek to understand the science behind their designs before they set to work.
  3. The focus should be on creating accessible resources – such as infographics and videos – to communicate scientific findings. Scientists may be tempted to include every data point from their research, but it’s not about the numbers so much as what they mean for our world. This translation is the designers’ job.
  4. Scientists should trust the designers they work with. Scientists should get involved in the first phase of communicating their findings, but they need to leave the creative process to the experts. (We wouldn’t want designers telling us how to run our labs, would we?)

When scientists make the effort to connect their complex research to what it implies about how we should live our lives – and clearly articulate it – they give people the information they need to make decisions that are in everyone’s best interest. Of course we can’t guarantee that everyone will agree with science’s recommendations, but at least the facts won’t be squirreled away in an academic silo. Science communication takes up this humble mission – to open up the possibility of applying science to help improve the condition of nature.

About the author

Puspita Insan Kamil,
Project Management & Research

A social psychology researcher with extensive experience in various human-environmental interaction research since 2012.

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