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The Two-Way Street of Science Communications

Dr. Dominique Brossard discusses the art and science of sharing science with the public.

Published June 19, 2018

The Two-Way Street of Science Communications
Dominique Brossard, PhD

Dominique Brossard, PhD

Teams of scientists sequenced the human genome, launched people into outer space, and split the atom, but the scientific community remains flummoxed by science denialism. This phenomenon, characterized by the rejection of scientific consensus, has most recently manifested in GMO fears, the anti-vaccine movement, and climate change denial. The consequences of science denialism can extend beyond the individual denier and have a global impact. Given these stakes, some scientists must wonder — how can they improve communicating with the public?

This rejection of some scientific facts doesn’t surprise Dominique Brossard, PhD, Chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A leading expert in the field of science communications, Dr. Brossard’s research focuses on the intersection of science, media, and policy. With evidence-based findings as her guide, Dr. Brossard knows that effective communication requires more than telling others that your expertise trumps their opinion. “We know that informing people of scientific facts doesn’t automatically change their mind about topics related to health, science, and technology,” she explained. “People rely on underlying psychological mechanisms that may not take facts into account. Because of that, just providing scientific information to the public is not effective enough to sway opinion about complex science issues.”

Dr. Brossard emphasized that scientists need to learn how to effectively communicate. “Very often people think communication is common sense and anyone can do it. It’s like how a person thinks they can cook, and they cook a meal, but then you taste it and it isn’t any good. There’s an art and science to communication.” Dr. Brossard warned that overeager scientists, who neglect learning how to communicate effectively, can inadvertently cause harm and described one pitfall known as the “backfire effect” which occurs, “when somebody has a belief and you counter with an argument that doesn’t fit within the repertoire of their beliefs, this person can become even more entrenched in their belief.”

Like all successful forms of communication, science communication requires a degree of empathy. Perhaps the most difficult part — not just for scientists, but for all people — is remembering that communication goes both ways. “The number one rule of good communication is to listen to the other side,” said Dr. Brossard. “Don’t just pretend that you’re listening and then regurgitate your talking points, but really listen to what the other person is saying.” Scientists who want to effectively communicate with the public need to understand their audience and adapt their messaging accordingly. People have a variety of reasons for rejecting science, “Whatever the reason, communicators have a responsibility to listen and try to understand where their audience is coming from. That should determine how scientists talk about science.”

Citing the climate change debate, Dr. Brossard made it clear, “If you want to encourage people to act in the face of climate change, you will have to understand why they are holding an opposite belief.” She offered an alternative strategy for getting through, “It’s fine to write about climate change, and continuously emphasize the scientific consensus, but you’ll be preaching to the choir … it may be more effective to write about the economic developments gained from developing renewable technologies.”

Effective science communication is a necessity because science is more than just technical knowledge. “The day of scientists being in their ivory towers are gone, noted Dr. Brossard. “Most research is paid by taxpayer money, which means people have the right to know what scientists are doing in their labs. Also, with fewer trusted translators of science working for news organizations, somebody has to take their place, and I believe scientists have to take that role.” Scientific discovery and technological advances often have moral and social implications that need to be discussed with the wider public. “Science communication is very tricky,” she said, “not only do you have to explain the science, you also have to explain the ethical, moral, and social implications of the science.”

When speaking with the public, Dr. Brossard offered three points of advice for scientists to remember, “One, it’s not easy. Two, if scientists do it, they have a responsibility to at least learn the basics. And three, scientists must always be communicating.”

Join Dr. Brossard and other experts in-person, or via Livestream, for the panel discussion, “Science Denialism, Public Policy, and Global Health” on Thursday, June 28 from 7pm – 8:30pm at the Academy’s headquarters (reception to follow). The panel is jointly presented by the Rutgers Global Health Institute and the New York Academy of Sciences.