We’ve talked at length about different ways that one can teach science communication in the classroom through lectures and classroom exercises. We’ve also written about helpful do’s and don’ts in teaching SciComm in a classroom setting. It’s great to teach students foundational skills that can help them explain complexities of science in a simple way to boost science understanding.
To maximize the effectiveness of science communication training, it’s important to understand how evidence-based science communication teaching actually helps communicate science better.
One area that is rapidly emerging is the use of science research and assessments to figure out how well practices are working in the classroom. That’s where what’s called “evidence-based SciComm” comes in.
What is Evidence-Based SciComm?
Original scientific literature is a great place to look for studies regarding the effectiveness of teaching methods aimed at building science communication skills. There are many studies that, by now, have studied what works in science communication — and what doesn’t. In fact, based on this growing body of work, Jensen and Gerber (2020) propose a “more integrated, evidence-based approach” to SciComm that is modeled after evidence-based medicine.
Evidence-based SciComm is a way to understand how effective SciComm content is. It can be applied pedagogically to improve teaching methods. Teaching via an evidence-based method “is essential to drive real progress in science communication as a field of practice,” Jensen and Gerber write. Science communication research not only improves SciComm but also provides “relevant, accurate, and timely” insights used by teachers of SciComm to improve their curriculum and training programs.
Jensen and Gerber have created a website to support evidence-based science communication, which includes an audiobook of their paper, as well as translations into Spanish and German.
What Can Practitioners of SciComm Learn from Evidence-Based SciComm?
Jensen and Gerber detailed 11 principles for Evidence-Based Science Communication. They include:
- Improve the practice of teaching SciComm empirically (that is, through research into what works and what doesn’t)
- Assess the impact of existing SciComm educational practices
- Bridging the gap between research and practice by using research to drive SciComm teaching methodology
- Collaboration: instead of trying to translate expert knowledge into practice, a cross-disciplinary approach is needed which can analyze real-world data to see what works and what doesn’t.
- Conducting a systematic review of evidence-based SciComm literature, just as one might systematically review research from any scientific field
- Help SciComm stay true to its values of social inclusion, good ethics, and democratic participation
- Promote systemic change in SciComm via informed decision-making in choosing science communication teaching methods — best pedagogy practices — backed by evidence.
Things We’ve Already Learned from Evidence-Based SciComm
Jensen and Gerber believe that “evidence-based science communication should combine professional expertise and skills with the best available evidence from systematic research.” To get to this goal, they recommend: more quality assurance in science communication research, improvements to the ways SciComm is taught in the classroom, and “improved interfaces between science communication research and practice.”
Science communication also comes with its own paradox. Scientists assess facts, risk, and certainty within the framework of the scientific method. In other words, they work in a systematic manner to uncover new truths about the world. Members of the public rely on intuition and emotion to guide decisions. A simple way of working through this paradox is to show your audience what it means to approach science scientifically.
Science communication should be based on facts, of course, but it also must help the audience recognize the complexity of the science, the decisions governments make, and the communication processes. Science affects all aspects of society, so a stronger understanding of science will improve the overarching understanding of different facets of humanity.
In addition to this, effective science communication should offer thriving collaborations between scientists and professional science communicators — one can’t exist without the other. Scientists and science communicators can use their different skill sets to help communicate problems and solutions in a more effective manner. For example, when communicating about COVID-19 vaccines, it is important that scientists work alongside communicators to discuss the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine to promote vaccination programs globally. It also helps to understand why, for example, the anti-vax rhetoric is so prevalent in society today.
If scientists are aware of the hard data when it comes to communicating science – both for how to improve vaccination rates and combat anti-vax rhetoric – they can leverage the information to communicate their science more effectively. Scientists can also learn tactics to make their science communication more effective.
Science reporting has sometimes proven unreliable in the COVID-19 pandemic, so scientists and science communicators must lead the way to improving channels of communication. Evidence-based SciComm research makes this easy. We recommend that scientists learn the foundations of effective science communication alongside their science training programs in order to break down information silos and promote free flow of information between science and society.
Here are a few key messages SciComm professionals have learned from evidence-based SciComm that can be applied in SciComm education and training programs:
1. Scientists can be persuaded with facts and data, but the general public does not find hard data genuinely convincing, in and of itself. Dan Kahan of Yale University reviews evidence suggesting that scientists are more skeptical and curious than the general audience. Scientists are likely to question facts compared to the non-scientist public. This might be because of the critical thinking skills required for scientists in the pursuit of new truths. When it comes to accepting different pieces of information as true, intuition plays a large role — so, if a non-scientist doesn’t find the messaging appealing, they might be less likely to buy into hard scientific truths. Prof. Kahan calls this the public irrationality thesis.
2. Practice incorporating emotion into SciComm. It is essential that science communicators speak not only from an understanding of facts, but also through understanding emotions. Rather than employing an approach based on pure reason, scientists and science communicators can practice working with emotion. More particularly, practice communication around strong primal emotions such as fear, anger, frustration and happiness. Have your students practice their communication separately for different emotions – how will they talk to someone who needs reassurance versus someone who’s angry?
For example, someone who is hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of the false claims surrounding infertility may not be able to look past the fear to understand the facts — they would have no real way of doing a critical analysis of the facts without scientific understanding. That’s one reason why, as a science communicator, telling them the facts alone won’t help – the person requires reassurance and proof. Using emotion and facts as a starting point, a science communicator can then proceed to narrow the gap between what scientists know and other members of the audience.
3. Bring cultural relevance through collaboration. Dr. Kahan also speaks of the cultural cognition thesis — highlighting that “certain types of group affinities are integral to the mental processes ordinary members of the public use to assess risk”. This is an aspect of communication worth teaching would be to practice communication with different cultures in mind. More specifically, it involves learning and teaching about different cultures and then encouraging communication as a team. One person alone cannot successfully communicate to every audience on their own. As a mentor, teach science communicators to leverage their own skills and communicate as a team – teamwork really goes a long way in science communication!
Science thrives on data, so why shouldn’t SciComm education? Applying tried-and-true SciComm principles tested via evidence-based SciComm can improve the quality of both science and science communication training. Strategies learned through the empirical study of SciComm bridge a gap between theory and practice, systematically improving SciComm education. Evidence-Based SciComm, and its teachings, help SciComm stay true to its values of inclusion, democratization of science, and good ethics.