Science communication generally refers to public communication presenting science-related topics to non-experts. This often involves professional scientists (called "outreach" or "popularization"), but has also evolved into a professional field in its own right. It includes science exhibitions, journalism, policy or media production.
Science communication can aim to generate support for scientific research or study, or to inform decision making, including political and ethical thinking. There is increasing emphasis on explaining methods rather than simply findings of science. This may be especially critical in addressing scientific misinformation, which spreads easily because it is not subject to the constraints of scientific method.
Science communicators can use entertainment and persuasion including humour, storytelling and metaphors. Scientists can be trained in some of the techniques used by actors to improve their communication.
Science communication can also simply describe communication between scientists (for instance through scientific journals), as well as between non-scientists.
Partly due to a market for professional training, science communication is also an academic discipline. Journals include Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. Researchers in this field are often linked to Science and Technology Studies, but may also come from history of science, mainstream media studies, psychology or sociology. As a reflection of growth in this field, academic departments, such as the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been established to focus on applied and theoretical communication issues. Agricultural communication is considered a subset of science communication from an academic and professional standpoint relating to agriculture-related information among agricultural and non-agricultural stakeholders. Health communication is a related discipline.
Writing in 1987, Geoffery Thomas and John Durant advocated various reasons to increase public understanding of science, or scientific literacy. If the public enjoyed science more, they suggested there would presumably be more funding, progressive regulation, and trained scientists. More trained engineers and scientists could allow a nation to be more competitive economically.
Science can also benefit individuals. Science can simply have aesthetic appeal (e.g. popular science or science fiction). Living in an increasingly technological society, background scientific knowledge can help to negotiate it. The science of happiness is an example of a field whose research can have direct and obvious implications for individuals.
Governments and societies might also benefit from more scientific literacy, since an informed electorate promotes a more democratic society. Moreover, science can inform moral decision making (e.g. answering questions about whether animals can feel pain, how human activity influences climate, or even a science of morality).
Bernard Cohen points out potential pitfalls in improving scientific literacy. He explains first that we must avoid 'scientific idolatry'. In other words, science education must allow the public to respect science without worshiping it, or expecting infallibility. Ultimately scientists are humans, and neither perfectly altruistic, nor perfectly competent. Science communicators must also appreciate the distinction between understanding science and possessing a transferable skill of scientific thinking. Indeed, even trained scientists do not always manage to transfer the skill to other areas of their life.
Cohen is critical of what has been called "Scientism" – the claim that science is the best or only way to solve all problems. He also criticizes the teaching of 'miscellaneous information' and doubts that much of it will ever be of any use, (e.g. the distance in light years from the Earth to various stars, or the names of minerals). Much of scientific knowledge, particularly if it is not the subject of public debate and policy revision, may never really translate to practical changes for the lives of the learners.
Many criticisms of academic research in public understanding of science come from scholars in Science and Technology Studies. For example, Steven Hilgartner (1990) argues that what he calls 'the dominant view' of science popularization tends to imply a tight boundary around those who can articulate true, reliable knowledge. By defining a deficient public as recipients of knowledge, the scientists get to contrast their own identity as experts. The process of popularization is a form of boundary work. Understood in this way, science communication may explicitly exist to connect scientists with the rest of society, but its very existence only acts to emphasise it: as if the scientific community only invited the public to play in order to reinforce its most powerful boundary (according to work by Massimiano Bucchi or Brian Wynne).
Biologist Randy Olson adds that anti-science groups can often be so motivated, and so well funded, that the impartiality of science organizations in politics can lead to crises of public understanding of science. He cites examples of denialism (for instance of global warming) to support this worry. Journalist Robert Krulwich likewise argues that the stories scientists tell are invariably competing with the efforts of people like Adnan Oktar. Krulwich explains that attractive, easy to read, and cheap creationist textbooks were sold by the thousands to schools in Turkey (despite their strong secular tradition) due to the efforts of Oktar.
Marine biologist and film-maker Randy Olson published Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. In the book he describes how there has been this unproductive negligence when it comes to teaching scientists to communicate. Don't be Such a Scientist is written to his fellow scientists, and he says they need to "lighten up". He adds that scientists are ultimately the most responsible for promoting and explaining science to the public and media. This, Olson says, should be done according to a good grasp of social science; scientists must use persuasive and effective means like story telling. Olson acknowledges that the stories told by scientists need not only be compelling but also accurate to modern science - and says this added challenge must simply be confronted. He points to figures like Carl Sagan as effective popularizers, partly because such figures actively cultivate a likeable image.
As his commencement address to Caltech students, journalist Robert Krulwich delivered a speech entitled "Tell me a story". Krulwich says that scientists are actually given many opportunities to explain something interesting about science or their work, and that they must seize such opportunities. He says scientists must resist shunning the public, as Sir Isaac Newton did in his writing, and instead embrace metaphors the way Galileo did; Krulwich suggests that metaphors only become more important as the science gets more difficult to understand. He adds that telling stories of science in practice, of scientists' success stories and struggles, helps convey that scientists are real people. Finally, Krulwich advocates for the importance of scientific values in general, and helping the public to understand that scientific views are not mere opinions - but hard won knowledge.
Imagining science’s publics
Many criticisms of the public understanding of science movement have emphasized that this thing they were calling the public was somewhat of an (unhelpful) black box. Approaches to the public changed with the move away from the public understanding of science. Science communication researchers and practitioners now often showcase their desire to listen to non-scientists as well as acknowledging an awareness of the fluid and complex nature of (post/late) modern social identities. At the very least, people will use plurals: publics or audiences. As the editor of Public Understanding of Science put it in a special issue on publics:
We have clearly moved from the old days of the deficit frame and thinking of publics as monolithic to viewing publics as active, knowledgeable, playing multiple roles, receiving as well as shaping science. (Einsiedel, 2007: 5)
However, Einsiedel goes on to suggest both views of the public are "monolithic" in their own way; they both choose to declare what something called the public is. Public understanding of science might have ridiculed publics for their ignorance, but an alternative "public engagement with science and technology" romanticizes its publics for their participatory instincts, intrinsic morality or simple collective wisdom. As Susanna Hornig Priest (2009) concludes in her recent introduction essay on science’s contemporary audiences, the job of science communication might be to help non-scientists feel they are not excluded as opposed to always included; that they can join in if they want, rather than that there is a necessity to spend their lives engaging.
The process of quantifiably surveying public opinion of science is now largely associated with the public understanding of science movement (some would say unfairly). In the US, Jon Miller is the name most associated with such work and well known for differentiating between identifiable ‘attentive’ or ‘interested’ publics (that is to say science fans) and those who do not care much about science and technology. Miller’s work questioned whether American publics had the following four attributes of scientific literacy:
- knowledge of basic textbook scientific factual knowledge,
- an understanding of scientific method,
- appreciated the positive outcomes of science and technology,
- rejected superstitious beliefs, such as astrology or numerology.
In some respects, John Durant’s work surveying British public applied similar ideas to Miller. However, they were slightly more concerned with attitudes to science and technology, rather than just how much knowledge people had. They also looked at public confidence in their knowledge, considering issues such as the gender of those ticking "don’t know" boxes. We can see aspects of this approach, as well as a more "public engagement with science and technology" influenced one, reflected within the Eurobarometer studies of public opinion. These have been running since 1973 to monitor public opinion in the member states, with the aim of helping the preparation of policy (and evaluation of policy). They look at a host of topics, not just science and technology but also defence, the euro, enlargement of the European Union, and culture. Eurobarometer’s recent study of Europeans’ Attitudes to Climate Change is a good example. It focuses on respondents’ "subjective level of information"; asking "personally, do you think that you are well informed or not about…?" rather than checking what people knew.
Science communication can be analysed through frame analysis, a research method used to analyse how people understand situations and activities.
Some features of this analysis are listed below.
- Public accountability: placing a blame on public actions for value, e.g. political gain in the climate change debate
- Runaway technology: creating a certain view of technological advancements, e.g. photos of an exploded nuclear power plant
- Scientific uncertainty: questioning the reliability of a scientific theory, e.g. arguing how bad global climate change can be if humans are still alive
People make an enormous number of decisions every day, and to approach all of them in a careful, methodical manner is impractical. We therefore often use mental shortcuts known as "heuristics" to quickly arrive at acceptable inferences. Tversky and Kahneman originally proposed three heuristics, listed below, although there are many others that have been discussed in later research.
- Representativeness: used to make assumptions about probability based on relevancy, e.g. how likely item A is to be a member of category B (is Kim a chef?), or that event C resulted from process D (could the sequence of coin tosses H-H-T-T have occurred randomly?).
- Availability: used to estimate how frequent or likely an event is based on how quickly one can conjure examples of the event. For example, if you were asked to approximate the number of people in your age group that are currently in college, your judgment would be affected by how many of your own acquaintances are in college.
- Anchoring and adjustment: used when making judgments with uncertainties. One will start with an anchoring point, then adjust it to reach an assumption. For example, if you are asked to estimate how many people will take Dr. Smith's biology class this spring, you may recall that 38 students took the class in the fall, and adjust your estimation based on whether the class is more popular in the spring or in the fall.
The most effective science communication efforts take into account the role that heuristics play in everyday decision-making. Many outreach initiatives focus solely on increasing the public's knowledge, but studies (e.g. Brossard et al. 2012) have found that there is little – if any – correlation between knowledge levels and attitudes towards scientific issues.
The simulation heuristic is used to judge how likely certain outcomes are based on the ease with which one can imagine a particular ending. This heuristic can be used for many tasks, including prediction (Will the Jets win this football game?) and causality (Did Jim eat the last slice of pizza?). An interesting application of this heuristic is to the case of near misses. Consider the following example from Kahneman & Tversky:
Mr. Crane and Mr. Tees were scheduled to leave the airport on different flights, at the same time. They traveled from town in the same limousine, were caught in a traffic jam, and arrived at the airport thirty minutes after the scheduled departure time of their flights.
Mr. Crane is told his flight left on time.
Mr. Tees is told that his flight was delayed, and just left five minutes ago.
Who is more upset?
Mr. Crane or Mr. Tees?
Almost everyone says, "Mr. Tees," because they cannot imagine how Mr. Crane could have caught his flight, while Mr. Tees might have made it if not for that slow pedestrian, or the exceptionally long security line. The simulation heuristic has this ability to generate "if only" conditions, which can be used to understand the negative feelings of frustration, indignation, etc. that arise from near misses such as that of Mr. Tees.
This simulation of how events might have occurred is referred to as counterfactual thinking, and can be used to try to identify a unique or unusual circumstance that lead to a dramatic outcome. For example, consider a man who is shot during a robbery while shopping at a convenience store. Subjects will award more damages to a man who was shopping at a store far from his house than they will to a man who was shopping at a store near his home that he commonly visits.
Regarding simulations of future events, simply imagining hypothetical events makes them seem more likely to occur. This phenomenon can be extended to a person's own behavior, as imagining oneself performing or refusing to perform an action causes changes in expections about one's future behavior. Interestingly, simulation is "more likely to increase the perceived likelihood of a potential outcome...than to reduce perceived likelihood of a potential consequence". Thus, the implications of research on the simulation heuristic are particularly intriguing when designing outreach efforts intended to change behaviors, such as increasing recycling or decreasing fast food consumption.
Science in Popular Culture and the Media
The Birth of Public Science
While scientific study began to emerge as a popular discourse following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, science was not widely funded or exposed to the public until the nineteenth century. Most science prior to this was funded by individuals under private patronage and was studied in exclusive groups, like the Royal Society. Public science emerged due to a gradual social change, resulting from the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century. As scientific inventions, like the conveyor belt and the steam locomotive entered and enhanced the lifestyle of people in the nineteenth century, scientific inventions began to be widely funded by universities and other public institutions in an effort to increase scientific research. Since scientific achievements were beneficial to society, the pursuit of scientific knowledge resulted in science as a profession. Scientific institutions, like the National Academy of Sciences or the British Association for the Advancement of Science are examples of leading platforms for the public discussion of science. David Brewster, founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, believed in regulated publications in order to effectively communicate their discoveries, "so that scientific students may know where to begin their labours." As the communication of science reached a wider audience, due to the professionalization of science and its introduction to the public sphere, the interest in the subject increased.
Scientific Media in the 19th Century
There was a change in media production in the nineteenth century. The invention of the steam-powered printing press enabled more pages to be printed per hour, which resulted in cheaper texts. Book prices gradually dropped, which gave the working classes the ability to purchase them. No longer reserved for the elite, affordable and informative texts were made available to a mass audience. Historian Aileen Fyfe noted that, as the nineteenth century experienced a set of social reforms that sought to improve the lives of those in the working classes, the availability of public knowledge was valuable for intellectual growth. As a result, there were reform efforts to further the knowledge of the less educated. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, led by Henry Brougham, attempted to organize a system for widespread literacy for all classes. Additionally, weekly periodicals, like the Penny Magazine, were aimed to educate the general public on scientific achievements in a comprehensive manner.
As the audience for scientific texts expanded, the interest in public science did as well. 'Extension lectures' were installed in some universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, which encouraged members of the public to attend lectures. In America, travelling lectures were a common occurrence in the nineteenth century and attracted hundreds of viewers. These public lectures were a part of the lyceum movement and demonstrated basic scientific experiments, which advanced scientific knowledge for both the educated and uneducated viewers.
Not only did the popularization of public science enlighten the general public through mass media, but it also enhanced communication within the scientific community. Although scientists had been communicating their discoveries and achievements through print for centuries, publications with a variety of subjects decreased in popularity. Alternatively, publications in discipline-specific journals were crucial for a successful career in the sciences in the nineteenth century. As a result, scientific journals such as Nature or National Geographic possessed a large readership and received substantial funding by the end of the nineteenth century as the popularization of science continued.
Communication of science in contemporary media
Science can be communicated to the public in a huge number of different ways. According to Karen Bultitude, a science communication lecturer at University College London, these can be broadly categorised into three groups: traditional journalism, live or face-to-face events and online interaction. Traditional journalism (for example, newspapers, magazines, television and radio) has the advantage of reaching large audiences; this is way most people regularly access information about science. Traditional media is also more likely to produce information that is high quality (well written or presented), as it will have been produced by professional journalists. Traditional journalism is often also responsible for setting agendas and having an impact on government policy. The disadvantages of traditional journalism include that, once a science story is taken up by mainstream media, the scientist(s) involved no longer has any control over how his or her work is communicated, which may lead to misunderstanding and misinformation. Also, this method of communication is one-way, so there can be no dialogue with the public, and science stories can often be reduced in scope so that there is a limited focus for a mainstream audience, who may not be able to comprehend the bigger picture from a scientific perspective. The second category is live or face-to-face events, such as public lectures (for example, UCL's public lunch hour lectures – museums, debates, science busking, sci-art, science cafes and science festivals. The advantages of this approach are that it is more personal and allows scientists to interact with the public, allowing for two-way dialogue. Scientists are also better able to control content using this method. Disadvantages include the limited reach, it can also be resource-intensive and costly and also, it may be that only audiences with an existing interest in science will be attracted.
The third category is online interaction, for example, websites, blogs, wikis and podcasts can also be used for science communication, as can social media. Citizen Science or crowd-sourced science (scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists) is another way that the internet can be used for science communication. Online methods of communicating science have the potential to reach huge audiences, can allow direct interaction between scientists and the public, and the content is always accessible and can be controlled by the scientist. Online communication also allows for both one-way and two-way communication, depending on the audience’s and the author's preferences. However, there are disadvantages in that it is difficult to control how content is picked up by others, and regular attention and updating is needed.
Research has shown that members of the public seek out science information that is entertaining, therefore it is important to bear this aspect in mind when communicating scientific information to the public (for example, through events combining science communication and comedy, such as Festival of the Spoken Nerd). Since the field of science communication is still new, more research is needed to identify exactly how and why the public engages, and what the impact of science communication through journalism, events or online actually is.
The Public Understanding of Science Movement
The public understanding of science, public awareness of science and public engagement with science and technology are all terms coined with a movement involving governments and societies in the late 20th century. During the late 19th century, science became a professional subject and influenced by governmental suggestions. Prior to this, public understanding of science was very low on the agenda. However, some well-known figures such as Michael Faraday ran lectures aimed at the non-expert public, his being the famous Christmas Lectures which began in 1825. The 20th century saw groups founded on the basis they could position science in a broader cultural context and allow scientists to communicate their knowledge in a way that could reach and be understood by the general public. In the UK, The Bodmer Report (or The Public Understanding of Science as it is more formally known) published in 1985 by The Royal Society changed the way scientists communicated their work to the public. The report was designed to “review the nature and extent of the public understanding of science in the United Kingdom and its adequacy for an advanced democracy.”. Chaired by the geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer alongside famous scientists such as broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, the report was evidenced by all of the major sectors concerned; scientists, politicians, journalists and industrialists but not the general public. One of the main assumptions drawn from the report was everybody should have some grasp of science and this should be introduced from a young age by teachers who are suitably qualified in the subject area. The report also asked for further media coverage of science including via newspapers and television which has ultimately led to the establishment of platforms such as the Vega Science Trust.
In both the UK and the United States following the second world war, public views of scientists swayed from great praise to resentment. Therefore, the Bodmer Report highlighted concerns from the scientific community that their withdrawal from society was causing scientific research funding to be weak. Bodmer promoted the communication of science to a wider more general public by expressing to British scientists that it was their responsibility to publicise their research. An upshot of the publication of the report was the creation of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), a collaboration between the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. The engagement between these individual societies caused the necessity for a public understanding of science movement to be taken seriously. COPUS also awarded grants for specific outreach activities allowing the public understanding to come to the fore. Ultimately leading to a cultural shift in the way scientists publicised their work to the wider non-expert community. Although COPUS no longer exists within the UK the name has been adopted in the US by the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science. An organisation which is funded by the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation and focusses on popular science projects such as science cafes, festivals, magazines and citizen science schemes.
- Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
- British Science Association
- List of popularizers of science
- Public awareness of science
Notes and references
- As summarised in Gregory, Jane & Steve Miller (1998) Science in Public: communication, culture and credibility (New York: Plenum), 11-17.
- Hilgartner, Stephen (1990) ‘The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses, Social Studies of Science, vol. 20(3): 519-539.
- (October 23, 2009.) "Randy Olson - Don’t Be Such a Scientist." (Includes podcast). Pointofinquiry.org. Accessed May 2012.
- Miller, Lulu (July 29, 2008)."Tell Me a Story." (Includes podcast). Radiolab.org. Accessed May 2012.
- Grushkin, Daniel (August 5, 2010). "Try acting like a scientist" The Scientist Magazine. Accessed May 2012.
- Massimiano Bucchi (1998) Science and the Media (London & New York: Routledge).
- Wynne, Brian (1992) ‘Misunderstood misunderstanding: Social identities and public uptake of science’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 1 (3): 281-304. See also Irwin, Alan & Wynne, Brian (eds) (1996) Misunderstanding Science (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press).
- Priest, Susanna Hornig (2009) ‘Reinterpreting the audiences for media messages about science’, in Richard Holliman et al (eds) Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age: Implications for Public Engagement and Popular Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 223-236.
- for example, see Irwin, Alan & Michael, Mike (2003) Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge (Maidenhead & Philadelphia: Open University Press). chapter 6
- Einsiedel, Edna (2005) ‘Editorial: Of Publics and Science’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 5-6.
- Martin Bauer, Nick Allum and Steve Miller, "What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda", Public Understanding of Science, volume 16, 2007, pages 79-95.
- Martin Bauer, Nick Allum and Steve Miller, "What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda", Public Understanding of Science, volume 16, 2007, pages 80-81.
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- Science Communication Graduate Program
- Indian Science Communication Society
- Journal of Science Communication
- Current discussions on Science Communication
- University of Oxford - Talking to Camera - teaching scientists to communicate
- The Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University
- Science Communication Professionals group on LinkedIn
- Science Communication (Journal)
- Science Communication Unit (Imperial College London)