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SocietySpiegeloog 417: Science

We Need More Effective Science Communication

By March 17, 2022No Comments

Trust in science as an institution is in decline, and the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis show the necessity of more effective science communication. How can we achieve this and which aspect of communication is the most important?

Trust in science as an institution is in decline, and the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis show the necessity of more effective science communication. How can we achieve this and which aspect of communication is the most important?

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen

Unfortunately, trust in science as an institution is in decline and attitude towards science has become ever more polarized in recent years across the globe (Rutjens, van der Linden, et al., 2021). Although, we have to acknowledge that science skepticism is not necessarily undesired. The reproducibility crisis, for example in the field of psychology, suggest that scientific findings also need to be held to scrutiny, and not all science skepticism should be considered as irrational (Rutjens et al., 2018). However, unhealthy skepticism occurs when there is a motivated rejection of science as a whole (Lewandowsky & Oberauer, 2016). Such anti-science attitudes can have drastic consequences to the individual as well as to the public. 

For instance, being exposed to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories has been found to be damaging to vaccination intentions by increasing the perceived danger of the vaccine and decreasing the trust in authorities (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). And for Covid-19, research has found that hospitalization rates were 17 times higher in unvaccinated individuals compared to the vaccinated ones (Havers et al., 2021). Thus, here, we can clearly see the detrimental effect of anti-science attitudes and conspiracy theories to individual as well as to public health. These harmful effects can also be seen in other topics, such as the environmental consequences of climate change denialism (Douglas & Sutton, 2015, 2018). The situation is especially distressing in this current age of digital media, since research shows that misinformation spreads much quicker online than regular content (Bessi et al., 2015; Vicario et al., 2016).

These circumstances make it imperative that we have to put more effort into understanding the underlying factors that determine the acceptance of scientific information. Our recent collective problems, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the climate change crisis, show that effective science communication can greatly support our response to these societal threats (Bavel et al., 2020; Rutjens, Linden, et al., 2021). Unfortunately, in most of the societal challenges we face, the problem is usually reduced to a technical one like increasing production rate to have more vaccines available or utilizing solar energy more efficiently in order to make clean energy more desirable. As an outcome, social sciences are not utilized at the forefront of these problems. Topics related to Covid-19 are mostly dominated by experts with a background in medicine, or experts from various engineering backgrounds are the ones that are usually employed in the effort to mitigate climate change. The scientific community must acknowledge, at some point, that these challenges are not technical; they are human-related and can only be solved by collective action. So, dear scientist, go boast your unchallengeable wisdom and utmost righteousness as much as you want behind the walls of your laboratory and in your glorified journal article, it really does not change anything about our societal problems. You have to understand that we can only solve these things together. So, please come down from your ivory tower and try to understand the public perspective a little bit (and no, making assumptions about ‘laypeople’ in your papers from now and then is not understanding). We are in dire need of communicating scientific findings more effectively.

In essence, through communicating the scientific findings, we want to lead to some form of behaviour change through informing individual decision-making. It is especially a substantial challenge to appeal to individuals during difficult times. In these circumstances, science communication is forced to compete for the attention of the recipient. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization declared that there was an online ‘infodemic’, the presence of overwhelming amount of both accurate and inaccurate information (Jamison et al., 2020). Hence, it needs to be appealing and persuasive. However, on the other hand, there is a major difference between scientific and non-scientific information in their level of accountability: in general, scientists are expected to be more respectful to the truth. Though we have to acknowledge that in some cases this just remains as an expectation, and I cannot say that all scientists, when communicating to the public or the scientific community, honour their duty to be truthful. Nonetheless, we can, without a doubt, state that scientists have an ethical responsibility to communicate the uncertainties in their findings and the risks associated with particular decisions (Fischhoff, 2013). Compared to other sources of information, it is harder for scientists to turn a blind eye to the uncertainties, simply because of the method we use.

“Compared to other sources of information, it is harder for scientists to turn a blind eye to the uncertainties.”

Unfortunately, communicating these uncertainties and risks have been scary for scientists. Oftentimes, it is assumed by many that uncertainty communication is a challenge to the appeal of scientific information, and it is therefore avoided (van der Bles et al., 2020). It is usually believed that the trust in science will decrease, and people will find other sources of information more appealing when the uncertainties are communicated. For instance, Han and colleagues (2018) found that uncertainty communication led to lower interest in vaccination as well as lower trust in health officials, indicating a negative effect of uncertainty communication. However, recent literature reviews suggest that the evidence regarding the effect of uncertainty communication is more mixed than intuition would suggest, and these effects do not seem to be applicable to every context (Gustafson & Rice, 2020; van der Bles et al., 2019). For example, there are differing effects depending on how much individuals respect science (Binder et al., 2016). Or other researchers have argued that even though uncertainties are generally aversive for humans, there has been very little empirical focus on communication of epistemic uncertainty, that is, uncertainties that are fixable, for example through more research (van der Bles et al., 2020). 

Considering the literature, choosing not to communicate uncertainties and risks might not be the best choice: by doing so, not only we operate on an unjustified intuition, but also, by lacking transparency, we might also be missing an opportunity to build more positive attitudes towards science and to enable more informed decisions (European Food Safety Authority et al., 2019; Fischhoff & Davis, 2014). We might just be further exacerbating the problem we already face through the negative effects of a perceived lack of transparency. We can come down from our ivory tower, try to get better at communication, earn the trust of the public, and understand how we can positively influence behaviour. This is not, and cannot be, a question of whether or not uncertainties and risks should be communicated to the public. No matter what, transparency should always be at the heart of science. We just have to learn how to be more effectively transparent. <<

References

-Bavel, J. J. V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M. J., Crum, A. J., Douglas, K. M., Druckman, J. N., Drury, J., Dube, O., Ellemers, N., Finkel, E. J., Fowler, J. H., Gelfand, M., Han, S., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., … Willer, R. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour 2020 4:5, 4(5), 460–471. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0884-z
-Bessi, A., Coletto, M., Davidescu, G. A., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2015). Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation. PLOS ONE, 10(2), e0118093. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0118093
-Binder, A. R., Hillback, E. D., & Brossard, D. (2016). Conflict or Caveats? Effects of Media Portrayals of Scientific Uncertainty on Audience Perceptions of New Technologies. Risk Analysis, 36(4), 831–846. https://doi.org/10.1111/RISA.12462
-Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2015). Climate change: Why the conspiracy theories are dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 71(2), 98–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096340215571908
-Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2018). Why conspiracy theories matter: A social psychological analysis. European Review of Social Psychology, 29(1), 256–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2018.1537428
-European Food Safety Authority, Hart, A., Maxim, L., Siegrist, M., von Goetz, N., da Cruz, C., Merten, C., Mosbach-Schulz, O., Lahaniatis, M., Smith, A., Hardy, A., Bampidis, V., Benford, D., Boesten, J., Bragard, C., Ingi Halldorsson, T., Hern andez-Jerez, A. F., Hougaard Bennekou, S., Panagiotis Koutsoumanis, K., … Younes, M. (2019). Guidance on Communication of Uncertainty in Scientific Assessments. EFSA Journal, 17(1), e05520. https://doi.org/10.2903/J.EFSA.2019.5520
-Fischhoff, B. (2013). The sciences of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3), 14033–14039. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1213273110
-Fischhoff, B., & Davis, A. L. (2014). Communicating scientific uncertainty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13664–13671. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1317504111
-Gustafson, A., & Rice, R. E. (2020). A review of the effects of uncertainty in public science communication. Public Understanding of Science, 29(6), 614–633. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662520942122
-Han, P. K. J., Zikmund-Fisher, B. J., Duarte, C. W., Knaus, M., Black, A., Scherer, A. M., & Fagerlin, A. (2018). Communication of Scientific Uncertainty about a Novel Pandemic Health Threat: Ambiguity Aversion and Its Mechanisms. Journal of Health Communication, 23(5), 435–444. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2018.1461961/SUPPL_FILE/UHCM_A_1461961_SM1834.ZIP
-Havers, F. P., Pham, H., Taylor, C. A., Whitaker, M., Patel, K., Anglin, O., Kambhampati, A. K., Milucky, J., Zell, E., Chai, S. J., Kirley, P. D., Alden, N. B., Armistead, I., Yousey-Hindes, K., Meek, J., Openo, K. P., Anderson, E. J., Reeg, L., Kohrman, A., … McMorrow, M. (2021). COVID-19-associated hospitalizations among vaccinated and unvaccinated adults ≥18 years – COVID-NET, 13 states, January 1 – July 24, 2021. MedRxiv, 2021.08.27.21262356. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.08.27.21262356
-Jamison, A. M., Broniatowski, D. A., Dredze, M., Sangraula, A., Smith, M. C., & Quinn, S. C. (2020). Not just conspiracy theories: Vaccine opponents and proponents add to the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ on Twitter. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1(3). https://doi.org/10.37016/MR-2020-38
-Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The Effects of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions. PLoS ONE, 9(2), e89177–e89177. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0089177
-Lewandowsky, S., & Oberauer, K. (2016). Motivated Rejection of Science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(4), 217–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416654436
-Rutjens, B. T., Heine, S. J., Sutton, R. M., & van Harreveld, F. (2018). Attitudes Towards Science. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 57, 125–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/BS.AESP.2017.08.001
-Rutjens, B. T., Linden, S. van der, Lee, R. van der, & Zarzeczna, N. (2021). A group processes approach to antiscience beliefs and endorsement of “alternative facts”: Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(4), 513–517. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684302211009708
-Rutjens, B. T., van der Linden, S., & van der Lee, R. (2021). Science skepticism in times of COVID-19. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430220981415
-van der Bles, A. M., van der Linden, S., Freeman, A. L. J., Mitchell, J., Galvao, A. B., Zaval, L., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2019). Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science. Royal Society Open Science, 6(5). https://doi.org/10.1098/RSOS.181870
-van der Bles, A. M., van der Linden, S., Freeman, A. L. J., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2020). The effects of communicating uncertainty on public trust in facts and numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(14), 7672–7683. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1913678117/-/DCSUPPLEMENTAL
Vicario, M. del, Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, H. E., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 554–559. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1517441113/-/DCSUPPLEMENTAL

Unfortunately, trust in science as an institution is in decline and attitude towards science has become ever more polarized in recent years across the globe (Rutjens, van der Linden, et al., 2021). Although, we have to acknowledge that science skepticism is not necessarily undesired. The reproducibility crisis, for example in the field of psychology, suggest that scientific findings also need to be held to scrutiny, and not all science skepticism should be considered as irrational (Rutjens et al., 2018). However, unhealthy skepticism occurs when there is a motivated rejection of science as a whole (Lewandowsky & Oberauer, 2016). Such anti-science attitudes can have drastic consequences to the individual as well as to the public. 

For instance, being exposed to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories has been found to be damaging to vaccination intentions by increasing the perceived danger of the vaccine and decreasing the trust in authorities (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). And for Covid-19, research has found that hospitalization rates were 17 times higher in unvaccinated individuals compared to the vaccinated ones (Havers et al., 2021). Thus, here, we can clearly see the detrimental effect of anti-science attitudes and conspiracy theories to individual as well as to public health. These harmful effects can also be seen in other topics, such as the environmental consequences of climate change denialism (Douglas & Sutton, 2015, 2018). The situation is especially distressing in this current age of digital media, since research shows that misinformation spreads much quicker online than regular content (Bessi et al., 2015; Vicario et al., 2016).

These circumstances make it imperative that we have to put more effort into understanding the underlying factors that determine the acceptance of scientific information. Our recent collective problems, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the climate change crisis, show that effective science communication can greatly support our response to these societal threats (Bavel et al., 2020; Rutjens, Linden, et al., 2021). Unfortunately, in most of the societal challenges we face, the problem is usually reduced to a technical one like increasing production rate to have more vaccines available or utilizing solar energy more efficiently in order to make clean energy more desirable. As an outcome, social sciences are not utilized at the forefront of these problems. Topics related to Covid-19 are mostly dominated by experts with a background in medicine, or experts from various engineering backgrounds are the ones that are usually employed in the effort to mitigate climate change. The scientific community must acknowledge, at some point, that these challenges are not technical; they are human-related and can only be solved by collective action. So, dear scientist, go boast your unchallengeable wisdom and utmost righteousness as much as you want behind the walls of your laboratory and in your glorified journal article, it really does not change anything about our societal problems. You have to understand that we can only solve these things together. So, please come down from your ivory tower and try to understand the public perspective a little bit (and no, making assumptions about ‘laypeople’ in your papers from now and then is not understanding). We are in dire need of communicating scientific findings more effectively.

In essence, through communicating the scientific findings, we want to lead to some form of behaviour change through informing individual decision-making. It is especially a substantial challenge to appeal to individuals during difficult times. In these circumstances, science communication is forced to compete for the attention of the recipient. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization declared that there was an online ‘infodemic’, the presence of overwhelming amount of both accurate and inaccurate information (Jamison et al., 2020). Hence, it needs to be appealing and persuasive. However, on the other hand, there is a major difference between scientific and non-scientific information in their level of accountability: in general, scientists are expected to be more respectful to the truth. Though we have to acknowledge that in some cases this just remains as an expectation, and I cannot say that all scientists, when communicating to the public or the scientific community, honour their duty to be truthful. Nonetheless, we can, without a doubt, state that scientists have an ethical responsibility to communicate the uncertainties in their findings and the risks associated with particular decisions (Fischhoff, 2013). Compared to other sources of information, it is harder for scientists to turn a blind eye to the uncertainties, simply because of the method we use.

“Compared to other sources of information, it is harder for scientists to turn a blind eye to the uncertainties.”

Unfortunately, communicating these uncertainties and risks have been scary for scientists. Oftentimes, it is assumed by many that uncertainty communication is a challenge to the appeal of scientific information, and it is therefore avoided (van der Bles et al., 2020). It is usually believed that the trust in science will decrease, and people will find other sources of information more appealing when the uncertainties are communicated. For instance, Han and colleagues (2018) found that uncertainty communication led to lower interest in vaccination as well as lower trust in health officials, indicating a negative effect of uncertainty communication. However, recent literature reviews suggest that the evidence regarding the effect of uncertainty communication is more mixed than intuition would suggest, and these effects do not seem to be applicable to every context (Gustafson & Rice, 2020; van der Bles et al., 2019). For example, there are differing effects depending on how much individuals respect science (Binder et al., 2016). Or other researchers have argued that even though uncertainties are generally aversive for humans, there has been very little empirical focus on communication of epistemic uncertainty, that is, uncertainties that are fixable, for example through more research (van der Bles et al., 2020). 

Considering the literature, choosing not to communicate uncertainties and risks might not be the best choice: by doing so, not only we operate on an unjustified intuition, but also, by lacking transparency, we might also be missing an opportunity to build more positive attitudes towards science and to enable more informed decisions (European Food Safety Authority et al., 2019; Fischhoff & Davis, 2014). We might just be further exacerbating the problem we already face through the negative effects of a perceived lack of transparency. We can come down from our ivory tower, try to get better at communication, earn the trust of the public, and understand how we can positively influence behaviour. This is not, and cannot be, a question of whether or not uncertainties and risks should be communicated to the public. No matter what, transparency should always be at the heart of science. We just have to learn how to be more effectively transparent. <<

References

-Bavel, J. J. V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M. J., Crum, A. J., Douglas, K. M., Druckman, J. N., Drury, J., Dube, O., Ellemers, N., Finkel, E. J., Fowler, J. H., Gelfand, M., Han, S., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., … Willer, R. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour 2020 4:5, 4(5), 460–471. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0884-z
-Bessi, A., Coletto, M., Davidescu, G. A., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2015). Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation. PLOS ONE, 10(2), e0118093. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0118093
-Binder, A. R., Hillback, E. D., & Brossard, D. (2016). Conflict or Caveats? Effects of Media Portrayals of Scientific Uncertainty on Audience Perceptions of New Technologies. Risk Analysis, 36(4), 831–846. https://doi.org/10.1111/RISA.12462
-Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2015). Climate change: Why the conspiracy theories are dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 71(2), 98–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096340215571908
-Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2018). Why conspiracy theories matter: A social psychological analysis. European Review of Social Psychology, 29(1), 256–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2018.1537428
-European Food Safety Authority, Hart, A., Maxim, L., Siegrist, M., von Goetz, N., da Cruz, C., Merten, C., Mosbach-Schulz, O., Lahaniatis, M., Smith, A., Hardy, A., Bampidis, V., Benford, D., Boesten, J., Bragard, C., Ingi Halldorsson, T., Hern andez-Jerez, A. F., Hougaard Bennekou, S., Panagiotis Koutsoumanis, K., … Younes, M. (2019). Guidance on Communication of Uncertainty in Scientific Assessments. EFSA Journal, 17(1), e05520. https://doi.org/10.2903/J.EFSA.2019.5520
-Fischhoff, B. (2013). The sciences of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3), 14033–14039. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1213273110
-Fischhoff, B., & Davis, A. L. (2014). Communicating scientific uncertainty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13664–13671. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1317504111
-Gustafson, A., & Rice, R. E. (2020). A review of the effects of uncertainty in public science communication. Public Understanding of Science, 29(6), 614–633. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662520942122
-Han, P. K. J., Zikmund-Fisher, B. J., Duarte, C. W., Knaus, M., Black, A., Scherer, A. M., & Fagerlin, A. (2018). Communication of Scientific Uncertainty about a Novel Pandemic Health Threat: Ambiguity Aversion and Its Mechanisms. Journal of Health Communication, 23(5), 435–444. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2018.1461961/SUPPL_FILE/UHCM_A_1461961_SM1834.ZIP
-Havers, F. P., Pham, H., Taylor, C. A., Whitaker, M., Patel, K., Anglin, O., Kambhampati, A. K., Milucky, J., Zell, E., Chai, S. J., Kirley, P. D., Alden, N. B., Armistead, I., Yousey-Hindes, K., Meek, J., Openo, K. P., Anderson, E. J., Reeg, L., Kohrman, A., … McMorrow, M. (2021). COVID-19-associated hospitalizations among vaccinated and unvaccinated adults ≥18 years – COVID-NET, 13 states, January 1 – July 24, 2021. MedRxiv, 2021.08.27.21262356. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.08.27.21262356
-Jamison, A. M., Broniatowski, D. A., Dredze, M., Sangraula, A., Smith, M. C., & Quinn, S. C. (2020). Not just conspiracy theories: Vaccine opponents and proponents add to the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ on Twitter. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1(3). https://doi.org/10.37016/MR-2020-38
-Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The Effects of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions. PLoS ONE, 9(2), e89177–e89177. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0089177
-Lewandowsky, S., & Oberauer, K. (2016). Motivated Rejection of Science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(4), 217–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416654436
-Rutjens, B. T., Heine, S. J., Sutton, R. M., & van Harreveld, F. (2018). Attitudes Towards Science. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 57, 125–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/BS.AESP.2017.08.001
-Rutjens, B. T., Linden, S. van der, Lee, R. van der, & Zarzeczna, N. (2021). A group processes approach to antiscience beliefs and endorsement of “alternative facts”: Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(4), 513–517. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684302211009708
-Rutjens, B. T., van der Linden, S., & van der Lee, R. (2021). Science skepticism in times of COVID-19. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430220981415
-van der Bles, A. M., van der Linden, S., Freeman, A. L. J., Mitchell, J., Galvao, A. B., Zaval, L., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2019). Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science. Royal Society Open Science, 6(5). https://doi.org/10.1098/RSOS.181870
-van der Bles, A. M., van der Linden, S., Freeman, A. L. J., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2020). The effects of communicating uncertainty on public trust in facts and numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(14), 7672–7683. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1913678117/-/DCSUPPLEMENTAL
Vicario, M. del, Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, H. E., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 554–559. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1517441113/-/DCSUPPLEMENTAL
Arda Ergin

Author Arda Ergin

Arda (2000) is a third-year psychology student specializing in Social Psychology and Psychology Methods, as well as doing a minor in Anthropology. He is mainly interested in writing about social processes, cultural phenomena, and scientific communication.

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