It’s not the science, it’s the scientists
Recent studies suggest scientists and engineers can counter growing mistrust from the general public by fostering a culture of explanation.
World events have reinforced the increasing trust gap between the informed public and mass populations, and according to recent public opinion data released American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Pew Research Centre, the trust gap between scientists and the general public is widening at alarming rates.
While historically much of the blame for eroding trust between scientists and the general public has been leveled at lobbyists, activists and the media, the AAAS report Public and Scientists’ View on Science and Society and the Canada West Foundation’s A Matter of Trust—The Role of Communities in Energy Decision Making, both agree, the trust gap can be narrowed with better communication skills.
When it comes to persuading the general public about complex issues, such as pipeline safety, mine water treatment processes, the reliability of solar energy or the benefits of public transportation, today’s engineers and scientists get failing grades. Certainly, while some anti-development and anti-science views arise from political or religious beliefs, much of the disconnect is because of a science and engineering culture that doesn’t promote good communication or value lay-level explanation skills.
But without lay-level communication skills, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach and communicate with non-science audiences crucial for project success. In A Matter of Trust—The Role of Communities in Energy Decision Making, the authors agree, “… the timing, channels, sources, and the nature and quality of the information affected community confidence in the decision- making process. While there is no ideal information strategy, the “information about information” – who has it, where it is, how one gets it – matters from the outset.”
Establishing a culture of explanation to ensure the general public are meaningfully engaged should become a standard for every project proponent. Scientists and engineers need to be encouraged to emerge from their cloistered realm of jargon and learn lay language and how to tailor communication to their audiences rather than believe merely presenting the facts of their work will lead audiences to see the light.
For example, I recently attended a public meeting where an engineer was explaining the safety of mine water management dam to a skeptical audience, when in frustration he said, “There is no reason to worry this dam structure is designed to withstand a 200-year flood event.” But when an audience member asked him what year he had started counting, his message fell apart and he responded by snapping “It doesn’t work that way, so you’ll just have to trust the science.” The audience member became enraged and combative.
At PR Associates, our Public Speaking and Communication Skills Workshops for Scientists and Engineers are designed to prevent events like this sidelining a proposed project. We provide the communication skills and tools required to effectively speak with impact and confidence and help gain credibility. We help scientist and engineers to shape and tell stories by understanding the audiences, the industry landscape and, in many cases, how to explain complex technical issues. In an increasingly complicated media ecosystem that includes traditional media outlets, search platforms like Google, social media channels like Twitter and limitless publishers of information and data, effectively engaging your target audience now requires more simplicity and clarity than ever – and less industry jargon.
Robert Simpson is the President of PR Associates, a National PR Agency based in Vancouver & Toronto. He is an experienced trainer and communicator who helps scientists, engineers and project proponents assess political, social and public risk
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