Filed Under (science communication) by admin on 22-05-2012

Bold Proposals: Harnessing Communication Science

(short summaries follow)

The Science & Entertainment Exchange: Fast Forward, Barbara Kline Pope, National Academy of Sciences

Big idea: teaming with Hollywood to inspire kids (and adults) to learn science through entertainment.

Exchange already exists; it’s provided 400+ science consultations to TV and movie producers, in shows including

  • TV: Consultation on House, Fringe, Covert Affairs, Castle
  • Movies: TRON, Appollo 18, Battleship, Watchmen, Thor. In the latter, a scientist wound up consulting for the set designer, and then also created a YouTube video teaching physics through the superheroes of Watchmen – viewed by nearly 2 million people.

They also hold salons and other events in Hollywood homes to spur ideas – programs are based around big scientific ideas (evolution, string theory, origins of life – and the “night of total desctruction” about plausible ways for the world to end.)


February 2011 Summit on Science Entertainment and Education, to figure out how to use Hollywood to dramatically improve science education.

Science of Fiction – using scenes in films to illuminate science learning materials. “an interactive participatory director’s cut of science learning.”

Taking shape: Have Hollywood create videos of basic science concepts and then when kids are in school, they get to interact.

The National Partnership for Climate Communication, Anthony Leiserowitz, Yale University

Trying to get a handle on what kind of information about climate people need and how are they communicating. It became clear people were doing it, but didn’t really know how.

His surveys have shown:

  • “Is Global Warming Happening?” – Lots of surveys show that we’ve seen substantial drops in people who believe that, down to 2010. Back on the rise but not far enough. Similar reductions in “Do you think it’s caused by human activities?” “Most scientists think it is happening.” And worry levels have dropped, too. Why? For many, climate change is a distant problem. Impacts won’t be felt in time and people think of polar bears, not the people and places they care about.
  • Free-association questioning: The question “what’s the first thought or image that comes to mind when you hear ‘global warming’?” Typically, the first response is “melting ice” – and this reinforces the notion that climate change is something happening way off in the distance, not in our own lives. And in multiple surveys over a decade “nobody associates climate change with impacts on human health. Zero.”

By 2010, so-called “naysayer” responses had shot up, despite efforts to communicate more about climate change.

Climate scientists don’t understand their target audiences – who they are, what they know, where they get their information, what their values are and how all that predisposes them to think and act.  Denialists, on the other hand are organized, focussed, stick to their messages – and are effective communicators for their message.

Leiserowitz proposes a national partnership for climate communication to inform and engage Americans in climate science and solutions. He suggests they focus on 4-5 key issues

  • It’s happening
  • It’s mostly human caused, this time
  • Unchecked, it will have serious consequences for humans and nature
  • Nearly all experts agree
  • It’s solvable, and there are lots of good ideas on the table

Not about advocacy. National, nonpartisan, diverse, academics, NGOs. Should be a learning organization with rigorous research and teaching woven in. A shared investment in a common knowledge base by climate, decision and communications scientists. The pieces are already coming into place. Social scientists are already building a shared knowledge base; networks are beginning to form, but mostly focused on specific sectors. We need to pull them into a coherent whole.

Risk Communication and Risky Decision Making: From Viruses to Vaccines, Valerie Reyna, Cornell University

Discussion of the notion of “gist” as the key to understanding, with is the key to science communication.

People have poor intuitions about science and math. They have dificulty understanding and applying scientific information, especially risk and uncertainty, and the rate of innumeracy is epidemic.

Science communication requires a model of the human mind:

  • Its background knowledge
  • Mental representations
  • Retrieval of princples and values

Beyond knowledge, we need good, insightful intuitions. Science is mediated by the brain, which interprets the “gist” of the message. She wants to see science use the gist of their messages to harness people’s valid intuitions.

Science Communication as the “New Political Science” for Democracy, Dan M. Kahan, Yale Law School

(Sorry, I missed part of Kahan’s presentation; it will be up in video within  24 hours at )


Filed Under (science communication) by admin on 22-05-2012

The Science of Science Communication IV: Developing Organizational Infrastructures for Evidence-Based Communication about Science

Institutional Constraints and Incentives: What Factors Determine When Scientists Act as Communicators and How They Succeed?, Hans-Peter Peters, Research Center Jülich

In his research over the past 30 years, he’s talked to researchers around the world, including humanities, social sciences, hard sciences and engineering.

The relationship of science and the public/media is often described as a gap, and there is a lot of truth to it, especially for the hard sciences, his focus today.

There’s lots of research on the nature of the gap:

  • the role of scientific norms in encouraging/discouraging researchers’ interactions with journalists
  • Incompatible professional cultures
  • Difference in how journalism and science constructs the world

He sees the gap between the two arenas is functional; the question is whether there is a bridge between the arenas, who uses it and who controls access to it?

Something like 30 percent of biomedical researchers surveyed said they had talked at least once to a journalist in the past three years. It’s not just the province of a selected few scientists. Another study shows the frequency of contacts differ grossly between different fields – the “harder” the science, the fewer the contacts. That says nothing about the representation of the subjects in the media .

Scientists’ goals and expectations in interacting with media:

  • Dissemination of scientific knowledge and knowledge about science, making it widely accessible to audiences outside science
  • Marking scientific knowledge/fields/projects/scientists etc. as “relevant to society”
  • Transformation of scientific knowledge by connecting it to phenomena, events, issues, knowledge and concerns outside science.

Scientists and media alike embrace the first two; the third is sometimes seen as problematic by researchers because they think it connects their work to inaccuracies, false controversies, etc. In fact, the conflicts between science and journalism often stems from the journalistic transformation of scientific information.

There’s also controversy over who should control the communication to the public: The scientist as originator, or the media as interpreter?  So some scientists are circumventing the media via direct contact using new media.

What motivates scientists to talk to journalists?

  • Perceived professional benefits: Far more say the impact on their career is positive than negative, though man feel no impact or both positive and negative.
  • Increased visibility makes scientists visible to sponsors and funding bodies. High expectation that this will be true.
  • Universities, research centers, etc. have mostly positive views of media contacts by their researchers. They profit; the organization’s name is put in the public view and most believe it’s a positive effect.

How free are scientists to talk with the media? Most say they need to consult within their organization first – either their superiors (Germany) or the public relations office (US).

What about the scientific community? A high proportion of US scientists say media contact would help their scientific reputations; the proportion is much lower in Germany. But there is some ambiguity, possibly based on conditions that have to be met before speaking to the media:

  • It’s about their own research
  • It’s not just self-marketing
  • They should wait to be asked, not take the initiative themselves

In summary:

  • Organizations have increasing weight in regulating scientists’ media contacts as compared to the influence of the scientific community
  • Institutionalization and professionalization of media relations
    • increases motivation, competence and resources
    • helps solve the resource problem of science journalism
  • Strategic utilization:
    • Increasing concern about “effects” as compared to accuracy or “truth”
  • Credibility risks. For instance, media wants to know “public relevance,” which can lead to overstatement of aspects of research.
  • Unintended consequences for public concept of science


Scientists are mostly positive or mixed about their media interactions. Only a few are mostly dissatisfied about them.

Building Organizational Infrastructures for Effective Communication: What Have We Learned from Experiences in the Corporate, Governmental, and Academic Worlds?, Ed Maibach, George Mason University

Albert Einstein “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” If we can do that we will succeed.”


1. The less we say, the more we are heard, but we need to say it often:

  • Identify what’s most important to convey, and find ways to make these points simply and concretely
  • Convey them early and often
  • Encourage other trusted sources to convey them as well
  • Make it easy for people in the target audience to convey them to each other.

“Simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”

2. The decision about what to say should be informed by audience research (not what we are most eager to say, but what is most useful for them to hear). We can learn:

  • What facts, once understood, make the biggest difference in helping audience understand as scientists do
  • Which misperceptions are the biggest barriers to audience understanding of the current state of the science?
  • Is the broader audience composed of distinct segments who have different information needs? (there is no “general public”)

3. Our most important asset is effective communication, not our knowledge and expertise. We should learn to use it. Effective communication can only happen in the presence of trust.

  • Climate scientists are among the sources the public most trusts on climate change  – except among low-trust Republicans.
  • Familiarity leads to liking; liking leads to trust. Most people can’t name a single scientist (65%).

4. It takes a team:

  • Content experts – for insight into the science
  • Social & decision science experts – for insights into audience behaviors and thoughts.
  • Communication experts – who know how to reach the audience, early and often, and can help study and test audience response

5. Evaluation is tricky, but that’s no excuse for not doing it

Questions about social sciences not conducting science at a high enough level. The best reply to this is to improve our methods. A valuable study is one that can usefully inform the policy community whether intervention is worth doing – without overstating the benefits.


1. Organizations need to put a lot more attention into the process of communicating and coordinating efforts internally, externally (to bring other trusted sources into the conversation with us).

2. Systematically invest in collecting audience data and conducting audience research.

3. Organizations should systematically help scientists become more familiar, liked and trusted by the people with whom they’re trying to share their knowledge.

4. Build interdisciplinary teams to improve information design and delivery.

5. Make evaluation of science communication a priority – and fund it!

Communication as an Empirical Endeavor: Why Is Systematic Evaluation So Rare and How Can We Make It the Norm?, Martin Storksdieck, National Research Council

What is systematic evaluation?

It’s different from research, which tries to generalize results to a larger population or problem. Evaluation is meant to find out whether something works. It’s not intended to prove “success” – it’s more complicated than that. It’s “what are we doing, for whom, how well?”


  • Fear of knowing?
  • Evaluation for what?
  • Output versus outcomes and impacts
  • The lack of awareness
  • The lack of trust
  • Inability to “do anything about it”
  • This is not usually how we create education and outreach.


  • Front-end evaluation is where we try to understand the audience, what do they know, what do they care about. A basic, deep understanding of who we serve.
  • The next part, formative evaluation, is where I’m designing something and I use audience research to do that.
  • Then, in situ testing: Once it exists and before I finalize it, I can still make improvements
  • Summative evaluation: What worked for who in what ways and why?

(More to follow)

Filed Under (science communication) by admin on 22-05-2012

The Science of Science Communication III: Communication Dynamics in Socio-Political Contexts – How Science Is Presented and Understood in Modern Mass Cultures

(Or: How is the rapidly changing news environment changing how we interact with science and each other?)

Effects of Mass Media on the Political Process: How Do Mass Media Shape the Nature of Public Debates About Science?, Matthew C. Nisbet, American University

The mass media have important influences on the public, experts, policy makers and journalists:

Through calling attention to some issues over others: As an issue rises on the media agenda it tends to rise on the public agenda, and then becomes perceived as a national priority.

  • By setting the frame of reference for context on an issue: Why the issue might be personally, politically or socially relevant.

Nisbet summarized research on the factors that drive media attention (the “agenda building and frame building process), including:

Research by Max Boykoff of the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research ( charts the up-and-down cycle of public attention, often around key political moments and decisions. We asume media attention should follow an issue’s objective importance, but the media doesn’t work that way.

An issue such as climate change or stem cell research goes for years without much attention, until an event catapults it into the public debate. until an event suddenly bounces it from non attention into the public debate. The drmatic potential of the issue is magnified, stakeholder groups begin to lobby the media and the discourse changes from technical/scientific issues to “more dramatic discourse,” including exaggerated claims about risks, benefits, values, ethics, etc.

  • Interest groups force an “increase in dramatic claims” and the issue becomes political. That adds to the general baseline of coverage, and thus we see a surge and spike in media attention, often leading to a decision. After that, media attention lessens and shifts back toward technical discourse, delegating decision-making back to places like the NIH until the cycle starts again. For example: The stem cell debate in the early 2000s.
  • There has been an overall decline in prominence of scientific coverage and an increase in more dramatic discourse about political strategy and conflict. It gets covered like a political election: who’s ahead, who’s right.
  • When the issue rises on the media agenda, it comes into public focus for the first time … and the focus is on risks, benefits, political strategy and conflict.
  • The same has been true for climate change. In 2009, we saw rising media attention leading up to a major international summit and debate on cap and trade in the House. Then the Copenhagen meetings happen, are seen as not successful – and political writers no longer see the issue as important. So coverage moves back to science and technical writers.
  • The more partisan a person might be the more likely they are to view even coverage that favors their position as hostile.

False balance (treating opposing viewpoints as equal, even when they aren’t) rises and falls with interest. See Boykoff’s 2007 study, “Flogging a Dead Norm: Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic Climate Change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003-2006” – – which showed that by 2007, false balance had virtually disappeared and 97% of media coverage featured the consensus view of climate science. The divergence was almost entirely on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. (Nisbet: “NewsCorp media organizations tend to challenge the consensus view.” While 70% of CNN/NBC coverage reflected consensus view, 60% of Fox News coverage challenged it).

Audience effects: Americans increasingly rely on our previous positions, values and political identities as information shortcuts to make up our minds on complex issues. Over the last 10 years as the country has become more polarized we see a growing number of “contrasting elites” and a gap in perception and understanding of climate science among partisan consumers. This is especially true among the highly educated. “Fox News appears to reinforce or shape the views of heavier-viewing Republicans … toward dismissiveness of climate change.”

Selective attention and selective information seeking: Seen even among AAAS members People read media, blogs, etc. according to their particular and ideology. We see this on people’s perception of scientific issues, too. What’s happen is that discussion of the ideological views of scientists has come to dominate discussion and debate on subjects such as climate change. The danger is that we start to think about the public in exclusively binary terms: liberal/conservative, deniers/acceptors.

“In fact if you look deeper, our binary box is challenged. The ideological poles represent only about 20% of public; about two thirds of Americans are on a contiuum from concerned to doubtful, convinced to skeptical. From a communication standpoint we need to figure out how to address this middle.”

Studies show that news and information framing climate in terms of remote landscapes, the fate of penguins, etc., is less effective than focusing on people and communities – the effects of climate change on epidemiology, etc. When you ask people to frame climate change in terms of public health risks and benefits, mitigation, etc., their reactions to the information goes up in a positive way. (Yet) only about 10 percent of stories on climate mention public health. still faces an agenda-building problem. Only 10 percent of stories on climate change mentoin public health.

See Nisbet’s report, “Human Implications of Climate Change

Effects of Mass Media on Knowledge and Beliefs: How Do Mass Media (Across Different Channels and Content) Influence the Public?, William P. “Chip” Eveland, Ohio State University

Variables impacting the knowledge of climate change. (“Knowledge” = verifiable information)

  • Beliefs: Something somebody accepts in their own mind as truth even though we may not be able to verify it. Variables – the person’s education, prior knowledge or experience, absence of time constraints and distractions – affect the individual’s ability to be influenced by mass communication.
  • Motivation: Interest, partisanship, social factors – drive exposure to information and information processing, and influence the extent to which mass communications can have an influence.
  • Broader implications of access to information.
    • There are still parts of the US without internet or cell phone access.
    • Content and form of media – for instance, print media versus television or other other audio visual media. There are fundamental differences in the way the human mind processes the same information presented by different media:

Media usage trends documented by the PewCenter :

  • Decline in regular use of television news, newspapers and radio news (“old forms”) over past decade.
  • Online news use is growing.
  • Growing tendency to engage in partisan versus mainstream news (23% regularly use Fox, while the highest percentage for the “traditional 3” TV networks is 18%)
  • Education differential – Print news tends to be favored by more educated (72 percent of WSJ have a college degree or higher) versus network evening news (27%)
  • Nature of audiences of different TV sources: CNN has an audience relatively split between liberal/moderate/conservative; Sean Hannity – mostly conservative; Olbermann – mostly moderates/liberals.

Segmenting is prominent but not perfect.

  • For instance, heaviest use of Daily show is among the young, but they’re still more likely to read a newspaper than watch the show. Older respondents just read the paper.

“We can broadly say that the nature of scientific info is going to vary by medium of delivery as well as the specific source within that medium. Representation of scientific consensus, for instance, varies by different media. Nonetheless we see science reflected in many ways across traditional media.”

Not measured, but should be: The nature of science coverage in entertainment programs, from documentaries to Hollywood blockbusters, TV science programs such as Mythbusters, or even shows like CSI, which may form most people’s notions of what forensic science means.

Different models and theories of mass communications address small parts of the issue:

  • Cognitive mediation model – A theory of the influence of mass communication on people’s level of knowledge or beliefs; it says people are driven by their motivations which influence their exposure, attention, knowledge, beliefs, etc. And information processing activities determine whether they’ll be able to recall information, accurate or not. Assumes relatively rational individuals. Fails to consider feedback processes – selection and processing is often influenced by previous selection and process, spiraling, building on itself.
  • Knowledge Gap hypotheses (from 1960s) – Suggests that as the coverage of a topic enters the media, things like status, education, motivation and interest determine whether or not people learn. In this model the gaps between people with low socioeconomic status/motivation and those with high status/motivation actually increase rather than decrease. “A rising tide may lift all ships, but it lifts better-off ships higher” – and when you try to fix things, you actually increase the differential.
  • Belief Gap hypotheses (more recent modification of above) – Rather than media attention increasing people’s knowledge it actually leads to a greater bifurcation between people with different predispositions. Before ntense news coverage began, no big difference was seen in beliefs about climate change. But with increasing media coverage came increasing polarization.
  • Differential Gains model – It’s not just the mass media, it’s the opportunity to interact and talk with each other about what they know. The effects of mass communication can be amplified by discussing the news with like-minded others. But if we talk to people with whom we don’t agree it may lead to an inhibiting effect – people talk to friends with different viewpoints and start to question what they see/hear.

The mix of media sources can also amplify or inhibit knowledge. What are the implications of listening to Rush Limbaugh? What if you listen to the other side as well? There are potential synergies. There are things we learn really well from print but not audiovisual media, and vice versa. It depends on what you’re trying to teach. Certain mixes can amplify things, other mixes may be redundant.

Speaking of entertainment – In entertainment, people are less likely to believe they are being overtly persuaded, so their guard is down. Their involvement in the character and story may create a setting in which certain messages become much more influential in persuading people to change their preexisting beliefs. There is certainly evidence that entertainment may be very influential as a form of science communication.

Cultivation process: The overall message you get from television can lead people to believe the real world is like the television world. For instance: “cool people in forensics labs getting results overnight” – leads people to think that’s the way science happens and it would be a really great career.

In summary: We have a process of selectivity. People’s preexisting values and attitudes, their socioeconomic status, age, education etc. their innate motivations drive their choices of media exposure (which, how many, how much). The mass media do have an effect on people’s knowledge and beliefs. And people’s background characteristics affect their likelihood to discuss, counter, and change the extent to which media exposure influences them. This happens over time. The factual knowledge you gain, the beliefs you develop from media exposure will feed back into your views, your exposure – and the process continues.

New Media Landscapes: Where Do People Go for Information About Science and How Do They Evaluate What They Find?, Dominique Brossard, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Where do people find information about science, what do they do with it, who do they trust? Online media are redefining the traditional view of science communication.

  • The most likely activity people do online: Using search. Autocompletion on search can influence which information we find and use.
  • Blogs versus traditional news: Cites the example of ScienceBlogs, featuring more than 80 bloggers who write about the science they conduct or the science that interests them. Such systems may not feed “the best topics,” but they succeed by feeding what people are looking for.
  • YouTube and other social media – Allow people to share things that combine audio-visual material, comment discussions and other dimensions, and include some interesting scientific communication coming directly from scientists in the lab, generating millions of views without mediation from “professional” communicators.

Direct communication from scientist to particular audiences is increasingly popular among younger scientists who think their new findings should be communicated directly to the public. That’s changing the way we think of science communication.

The processes other speakers describe are still valid – ie, selective exposure (looking for things that interest us), but we also look at things online because people suggest it to us (viral behavior). The good news is that science can go viral. The likelihood of that happening increases when the story is awe-inspiring – and science has a lot of that “wow factor. A challenge is evaluating online science information for credibility.

Four out of five Americans use the Internet. Here’s how:

  • Search is the most popular activity. If we want our information found, we need to use known Web-design techniques to help people find it (keyword optimization, etc.)
  • Second in popularity: Email
  • Third: Social networking (40% of Americans use social networks). Not just teenagers; this is something many people do on a regular basis, and increasingly involves sharing and consuming news and opinions about the news.
  • 71 percent of Internet-using adults use YouTube and other video sharing services.
  • 60% of Americans go online via wireless devices, cellphones and other mobile devices. And these devices increase the likelihood of users reading the news.

Traditional media are being replaced by online media – and responding by entering social media themselves. Note that recent Pulitzers went to the Huffington Post and Politico, to online-only mass media.

Social networks contribute to diffusion of news – people access news because they saw a link on a page, or because someone recommended the story.

In sum, new communication environments provide essentially unlimited information on a large number of issues which can be obtained almost anywhere with relatively little effort.

What does this mean for science information consumers?

People use their value and perceptual filters to decide what to look for online and how to make sense of it.

Her 2010 data shows a cohort shift among audiences for science news. Where do we pay attention for science news? Only 6 percent cited traditional media (online OR print). And among 18-34-year-olds there’s a shift to online-only – and not even online versions of newspapers or TV. They go to social network and sharing sites and follow links that interest them.

The shift is not across the board. Online users skew more male than female; and more-educated male audiences go to specific sites that don’t fall within traditional media.

Almost 60 percent of respondents say they rely on online sources for specific scientific issues, although many still use traditional media for general news. although many still go to traditional media for general news.

In the speaker’s studies, she found:

  • A relationship between search patterns and results. “What we find, disturbingly, is a discrepency between what they look for, the items suggested to them, and what they find.” For instance: On nanotech the vast majority of what people found was related to health, which is out of proportion with actual work in the field. This has a potential to distort the importance of a particular topic.
  • Google traffic drives search suggestions, and that drives results, so there’s an amplifying effect when many people search a given scientific topic.
  • Information is contextualized. What happens when news items include user comments, Facebook likes, reTweets – how does that impact the news?
  • They studied blog comments and how that might impact perceptions of believability and bias. In particulary, they found that online civility in comment sections actually increases the perception of bias. That’s an extremely important finding.

Related issue: Peer review in online media: Standard journals versus direct online posting? Increasingly, scientists want to release policy-relevant reports in real time, and that doesn’t allow for peer review. Even peer review doesn’t always guarantee accuracy. Perhaps the notion of peer review itself is being changed – online debate among scientists may actually enhance peer review and help the scientific process.

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