Communicating science

microphone by hiddedevries
A Climate (Communication) Crisis?:
[Via Dot Earth]

If experts change how they describe global warming, will people wake up?


Interesting points but trying to be more emotional and dramatic is not very effective when facts are trying to be exchanged. There has been a lot of research done that exposes the steps individuals and communities progress through as they adopt new idea and change their viewpoints. It might be better to be aware of this than to try framing exercises.

The five steps are awareness, interest, evaluation, trial and adoption. Different people move through these steps at different rate.This results in a differentiation of a population into different groups: innovators, early adopters, early majority,

Scientists are generally on the innovator/early adopter spectrum of things, especially compared to the entire population, which, by definition, is mostly the 68% in the middle.

Innovators and early adopters take their cues from outside influences and their own experiences. They are open to ideas that come from outside the community and move much faster through the five steps than others. They are not as dependent on community influences as the majority are.

So scientists are influenced by people who are outside their direct social network. We are trained to do that in order to examine data, converting it into useful knowledge that gains us understanding of the natural world. We have a lot of training that helps us have the sagacity to determine the usefulness of a new idea. even if the idea comes from someone ‘outside.’

But, for the majority of people in the middle, outside influences are suspect. They usually will only adopt an innovation or change their opinion when a respected member of their own community, of their social network, tells them to. They are generally influenced only by those close connections in their social network.

If the scientist is viewed as the other, as outside the group, many people will not listen to them. They seldom are influenced by anyone outside the group. This is why being liked can be such a big plus when trying to change someone’s mind.

When you are liked, you are more easily admitted to the group and will be listened to. Politicians know this. That is why likability is so important for them. Unlikeable politicians won’t get elected.

But few scientists are influential in the scientific community because they are liked. They are influential because they are good at making data into knowledge. But this is not something the majority will ever use to shape their opinions on the reliability of an outside researcher.

Thus, scientists can and do listen to others but the majority will only change when they and their connections are directly effected. This is probably why knowing someone who is gay has a much greater influence on someone’s opinion that anything GLBT groups can say. Becoming trusted by the group is more important than presenting facts, even if the facts are correct.

Most scientists think that the data should speak for itself. That is because they are really good at the evaluation step. They use their tacit and explicit information to make a decision and move quickly through the last two steps. IIn fact, scientists have to be pretty good at moving through all five steps rapidly or they will not be a very successful researcher.

Most everyone else is stuck at the interest stage. They await the opinions of influential members of their community to move beyond evaluation.

So to engage and educate, scientists must move out into the community. They must be seen as unbiased members who provide information for others to deal with. This can be quite difficult for many scientists. Part of this is because science attracts people with very health egos. You have to be very strong because in science, you fail a lot of the time. To keep on doing something, knowing it is unlikely to succeed, oftenrequires a monster ego.

So it is often hard for a scientist, who has made it through all 5 steps, to accept that someone else will not just listen to them, just trust them. ‘We are a scientist, after all! We know more about it. Why are you unable to understand the simplest things?’

All things that are not going to make the scientist liked in the community.

The majority of people only see someone from outside dealing them to do something.The first thing they often think is “What is he trying to sell? What is his angle?”

People like science because they enjoy understanding the world around them. But scientists do not have many useful organizations to help them engage with the public. They have very little training in how to deal with people that do not react to the world like they do. They often have to do it themselves. Perhaps if there was a more formal process to bring scientists into the community, we could get the majority convinced quicker.

The majority will move eventually and when they do, things can move rapidly. Facilitating this would be a worthwhile endeavor.

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