How does the public perceive and interpret your science?

Posted on Jul 31, 2017

In 1996, a booked called Misunderstanding Science: The public reconstruction of science and technology was published. It’s a cryptic title for a book themed around how it is actually science (& scientific communicators) that misunderstands the public. And even though the book is more than 20 years old, there are some very applicable pieces to anyone who communicates STEM information to a non-technical audience.

Case study of a chemical company in England

Chapter two uses qualitative and quantitative data to investigate the local perception of potential hazards from a chemical company in England. Study methodology included a door to door survey of residents living closest to the chemical plant.

The study reports more than 50 percent of area residents were concerned about potential hazards created by this company. However, only a small number of people reported seeking more information.  If people did seek more information, the vast majority sought it from the company itself. However, and critical to our understanding, is only one-quarter of respondents think the chemical company is trustworthy.

So, hardly anyone seeks out information, even if they are worried, and when they do, they seek it from a source they likely don’t trust. Doesn’t seem too promising.

Trust is the major factor

Based on qualitative responses, the study hypothesizes three interesting conclusions.

Firstly, people don’t seek out answers to their questions and concerns because they feel powerless and believe even if they express a concern, the company will not do anything about it.

Secondly, people don’t trust technical information from a company because the organization has a “monopoly of self-interest information”.

Thirdly, people consider technical information in the context of their other forms of knowledge and understanding. Thus, we need to be sensitive to the possibility there are different forms of knowledge based on social and cultural processes through which public knowledge is communicated and generated.

In its analysis of the data, the study provides useful insight in communicating science through these barriers:

  • Be willing to engage with alternative world views and knowledge, rather than labelling them as emotive and ignorant.
  • Consider public understanding as interactive. i.e. dialogue, not information pushing.
  • Appreciate the diversity and range of citizen’s understanding and be alert to the variety of technical expertise and who is considered an expert.
  • Provide alternative, credible sources who are accessible, local and sympathetic to the needs of people.

For well more than a decade, PR Associates has been helping companies do exactly this. Give me a bell, and we can talk about your specific needs.

This book has several additional insights, and this blog the first in a series of examinations from the book.


Megan Helmer, Vice President of PR Associates, a national communication firm based in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa

At PR Associates, there is no learning curve because health and science communication is all we do. As experts and seamless extensions of your team, we use science storytelling to clarify complexity, capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and stimulate investment interest.

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