Much of what researchers believe about the public and effective communication is wrong.
Scientists in the United States and Europe have long been concerned with how well the public understands science, whether or not the media adequately covers science, and how the public reaches decisions on complex science-related policy issues. Given the norms of our profession, however, it is ironic that many of these debates about how to best communicate science with lay populations are driven by intuitive assumptions on the part of scientists rather than the growing body of social science research on the topic that has developed over the past 2 decades.
In May, more than 500 researchers, journalists, and policy professionals gathered at the National Academies in Washington, DC, for a 2-day forum on the “Science of Science Communication” to dispel some of these intuitive but persistent myths about science, the media, and the public.
1. Americans no longer trust scientists. Prominent scientists warn that we have entered a new “dark age,” where the public no longer trusts scientific expertise.
2. Science journalism is dead. Though scientists are often critical of the news media, calling attention to perceived bias on the part of journalists, they also fear that budget cuts at news organizations have meant the death of science journalism.
3. Entertainment media promote a culture of anti-science. Since the 1970s, scientists have feared that entertainment TV and film undermine public trust in science.
4. The problem is the public, not scientists or policymakers. Scientists have long believed that when the public disagreed with them on matters of policy, public ignorance was to blame.
5. Political views don’t influence the judgments of scientists. In debating science-related policy matters, we tend to assume that scientists are not influenced by their own political views. Yet in a recent study co-authored by one of us (Scheufele), we find that even after controlling for their scientific judgments, scientists’ political ideologies significantly influence their preferences for potential regulatory policies.