Why science communication often fails

science by o palsson

A great paradox of the current world:

Researchers are probably uniquely qualified to present the facts about much of the complexity we are dealing with, allowing us to make rational decisions about the problems facing us. But their training also makes them uniquely UNABLE to provide the stories that people will actually listen to.

My words about the problem.The same rules of thumb that create great science produces scientists that have a hard time connecting with the rules of thumb used by most others. Their heuristics do not overlap enough.

There was a wonderful conjunction of several online posts I read today that helps illustrate this. The first was this one:

Is Our Scientists Learning?
[Via The Intersection]

In my talks, I often discuss the different groups who came to meet with me when I worked on Capitol Hill with regard to who was most effective. On science related issues, the general breakdown fell into two categories (with exceptions):

  1. Scientists from universities or NGO’s would usually show up in my office with a briefing binder as thick as a phone book. There would be a lot of charts, p-values, figures, and complicated concepts. Most didn’t talk to me, but at me. And the take home message would be different than that of the other scientists I met the previous hour on the same subject.
  2. Special interest groups were frequently very well organized. They spoke with a common theme and brought articulate speakers. Rather than stop in our office, they usually hosted large and well attended briefings, supplying easy to digest hardcover books with titles like ‘climate change conspiracy.’ Typically they were funny and made references to Michael Crichton’s science fiction. Perhaps most importantly, they provided a free boxed lunches and held long Q&As to engage the audience.

Both types introduced themselves as the “honest broker” of scientific information, but the latter often made the stronger impression with staffers.


So we have a whole post discussing how sucky scientists are because they present facts and not lunches, they show figures instead smoozing, they have charts instead of playing to the egos of policy makers.

As a researcher, it was a little upsetting to read something like this, that facts are not what are important. In fact, the truth may be the least important thing. Others felt the same way:

Once Again, Professional Science Communicators Blame the Victim
[Via Mike the Mad Biologist]

Since I’ve raised this issue before, and it doesn’t seem to have taken, the gloves are coming off.

Once again, we see the sorry spectacle of blaming scientists for policy failures–all scientists, not a subset (consider this foreshadowing). As always the ‘scientists’ are described as bookish nerds who bore policy makers and reporters with p-values.

This is as stupid as blaming a working ob/gyn for the lobbying failures of NARAL.


This pretty much shows the scientist’s viewpoint. We deal in facts. That is how we’re trained, how we talk and how we expect others to respond. It is really hard to understand that most people are not convinced by facts. In contrast to researchers, they are convinced by stories and by narratives.

An article I ran across drove this point home:

BBC News – Why do people vote against their own interests?

[Via BBC ]

Last year, in a series of “town-hall meetings” across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.


This article explored why people were so against things that actually would help them. And it suggests that stories are what count, not facts:

For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: “One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious.


As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex.

In a very complex world, people do not have the time to fully understand the many aspects of this complexity. They have to use their own heuristics to try and reach a decision. These rules of thumb are very seldom based purely on facts unless those are what one has been trained to use.

I’ve written about the need for a story, the need to create narratives, in order to effect change.

Scientists have had a lot of hard training to provide them with tools and approaches to make decisions based on facts. Most people have not. They respond to stories and narratives that resonate with their personal heuristics.

So, researchers present the facts, show charts and expect people to reach the same logical conclusions they did. But most people react to stories that make these complex facts understandable.

But to scientists, those stories are poor substitutes for the truth. And they may be poor substitutes but that is often irrelevant to the discussion.

It does not matter whether a scientist is able to convince someone to adopt a policy because of the facts or because of a nice lunch. What matters is the convincing.

Of course, that is an anathema to many researchers. If facts do not work, nothing will.

So, the conflict.

I agree with Mike that this is not something most scientists can deal with. It goes against their own heuristics.

But there has to be a way to identify people who can present a truthful scientific narrative that will help policy makers decide on the reality-based solution. Otherwise, the group with the best lunch – and most money – will drive the decisions.

3 thoughts on “Why science communication often fails”

  1. I was fortunate enough to recently attend the Communicating Science Workshop sponsored by Stony Brook University Center and Brookhaven National Laboratory where Alan Alda gave the keynote address. I came away from this workshop with many valuable tips and tricks to be a better science communicator and I will use this blog post to share these gems with you. See: http://bit.ly/arsL2x

    Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
    Selden, NY
    Global Warming: Man or Myth?
    My Global Warming Blog
    Twitter @AGW_Prof
    “Global Warming Fact of the Day” Facebook Group

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