Science communication: the facts are everything, but the facts are not enough

Posted on Sep 27, 2019

It seems inconceivable that here in the 21stcentury, in the developed world, we have seen resurgence of diseases that are technically preventable. For decades, we have had safe, effective, and cost-effective vaccines to protect our children and our population against communicable diseases including smallpox, pertussis, and measles.

And yet, after decades of decline, instead of eradication, we have seen a comeback.

This is not a science problem. That is, this is not a matter of virus mutation requiring a technical solution. It is a communication problem.

As incidents of these diseases waned in the developed world thanks to the prevalence of vaccination, perceived threat waned accordingly. And in this space an alternate threat was posited and held. A flawed study linking the MMR vaccine to incidents of autism was one component of what became a compelling story.

The response from the scientific community relied heavily on the deficit model to address public concern. Using the deficit model, vaccine skepticism is understood to be the result of the public’s lack of knowledge. If only scientists take the time to educate the masses and communicate information, then science-based decision making – and in turn public support of science – will prevail throughout society.

But communication, including science communication, cannot exist in a vacuum. It is imperative to understand the perspective of your audience. In this case, it was necessary to consider parents’ instinct to protect their children from any threat, real or perceived.

Clumsy, stereotypical messaging of the facts did not address the perceived fear and did not fare well against a compelling and frightening story. Despite communication of the facts related to vaccine safety, a significant drop-off in child immunization rates followed the MMR controversy.

The missing link here was not communication, but effective communication.

And it is not a unique case. Science communicators have also struggled to combat the spread of misinformation associated with the causes and effects of climate change and other phenomena that hold strong validity in the scientific community.

If it is difficult to convey and convince using familiar established facts, it is even more challenging to gain understanding of innovations that hold possibilities for the future. And without understanding, a promising innovation cannot garner funding necessary for development or implementation.

When we can’t get the facts across, it has a direct impact on people’s lives.

In effective science communication, we need to:

Make it clear

Effectively communicating new discoveries and the benefits of science to audiences without the same technical background is challenging. Expertise itself brings the risk of falling prey to the “Curse of Knowledge”. This term was coined by Chip and Dan Heath and recognizes the psychological reality that “once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it”.

It is vital to be aware of this effect in order to craft clear messages that are truly understood by target audiences.

Make it interesting

There is a reason stories are associated with entertainment, not instruction. Putting knowledge into a story framework is more lifelike or true to our day-to-day, which makes the information they contain more accessible and more interesting. And crafted well, stories provide an opportunity to anchor new information or ideas in audience’s existing knowledge to increase understanding.

Make it relevant

Tailor messages with the audience in mind. Taking the time to evaluate and then communicate with an understanding of what is important to the audience is the key to making it relevant. In the example of the vaccination scenario above, the scientific information provided about vaccines was accurate, but was not effective in addressing the fear created by the compelling story of the perceived risk that had taken hold. The facts were necessary, but they were not sufficient.

Make it timely

Listening is core to effective communication. Understanding public perception via a keen awareness of traditional and online channels like social media, is vital.

These are some of the components our team embraces to simply, accurately and successfully communicate science. Consistent with our clients, we are evidence based. The team at PR Associates has been instrumental in successfully permitting more than $20.5 billion of technically complex science projects from clean technology, mining, oil and gas, energy, infrastructure, technology, medical research and bio-technology.

That is The Science of Communication™.

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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