How Audiences Assess Authenticity in Science Communication

New research narrows in on factors that move the needle – and those that don’t – in public perception of authenticity in science communication

Communicating science – and doing it well – is fundamental to cultivating a scientifically engaged society and a discerning public.

The appetite for science information remains sharp. After all, people want to understand the increasingly complex world they live in and make decisions about innovations that could profoundly affect their lives.

Citizens also have a weighty impact on science itself – how science is received, discussed, and prioritized. No scientist today can disregard the potential impact of public perception, misperception, or lack of awareness, on their work. They have to give some thoughtful attention to how their communication may be perceived.

Navigating the public discourse is undeniably challenging in our increasingly complex and polarized public environment. That’s why scientists who seek to foster understanding, better decision-making and support for the advancement of science are prudent to explore what factors help make an audience more receptive.

Beyond professional credentials and quality work, scientists have to consider how to package and relay complicated information in plain language. To boot, scientists also have to manoeuvre strategically through a cluttered digital environment and be prepared to face potentially tetchy social media commentators.

Making matters worse, it’s becoming more difficult for lay audiences to assess the integrity of the science information they consume. Online information can be inconsistent and misleading. That has led to today’s audiences not only having to judge the science, but also to gauge the scientist.

The science community is then left to figure out what exactly audiences consider important when deciding who to trust. And among these factors, which ones – if any – can the scientist actually control?

The field of science communication is contributing a wealth of data and best practices on these very questions. Most notably, they’re doing research on subtle assets, like powerful storytelling, that can set a scientist apart in successfully boosting credibility and establishing trust with a lay audience. Digging even deeper, some are looking at the factors that make a difference when the author is seeking to increase the perception of authenticity when telling a story.

Among the newest developments is research by the University of Missouri and University of Colorado looking at which types of storytelling approaches can help scientists increase trust and connection with audiences.

In their January 2020 paper, Constructing and influencing perceived authenticity in science communication: Experimenting with narrative, authors Saffran, Hu, Hinnant, Scherer and Nagel say “as scientists increasingly incorporate narrative into their communication efforts, there may be unintended consequences to attempting authentic communication without having studied the qualities of effectively authentic messages. There is evidence that inauthentically communicating even a true message may diminish trust.”

The researchers developed and tested a way to measure authenticity in science communication. Using a non-controversial scientific brief distributed to hundreds of US-based test subjects, they gauged the effect of certain narrative approaches on the perceived authenticity of a message.

Among their findings, they reveal that when a scientist uses first-person narrative style and includes a reference to the scientist’s own origin of interest in the subject (‘I first became interested in science as a child and wanted to travel in space and see alien life forms’) , the audience is more inclined to perceive the communication as authentic. In effect, audiences resonate when a scientist communicates their ‘personal stake’.

Just as important for scientists to know are some of the factors that may seem intuitively promising for audience connection but may not actually boost perceived authenticity. Notably, the researchers assess the impact of admitting uncertainty and errors. In testing messages that mention fallibility (i.e. that research might need to be re-evaluated in the future, or admitting to past mistakes), the research demonstrates that relating such vulnerabilities to the audience does not increase perceived authenticity.

Such findings equip scientists with helpful, evidence-based tools to help ‘cut through the noise’. When scientists express why they care, this not only strengthens perceived authenticity, but also happens to be an action within the span of the scientist’s control.

In this age of growing cynicism and polarization in public discourse, using practical research developments like these to inform a science communicator’s strategy is clearly an advantage worth pursuing.

— Robert Simpson is the President and CEO of PR Associates —

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