Science communication

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Science communication is itself the subject of a field of scientific study - the science of science communication - which seeks to understand how we communicate (or fail to communicate) various aspects of science, generally to non-scientists. It is different from science education which assumes an audience which is willing to learn but lacking information and understanding (what is known as the "information deficit" model), and seeks to rectify that deficit. Science communication is concerned with overcoming misinformation and biases which prevent us from accurately understanding scientific matters.

Such misinformation and misunderstandings can have serious impacts on society. For example when significant numbers of people reject the science on vaccines, or public health measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, then infectious diseases spread. When people reject the science on climate change or its mitigation solutions then we fail to tackle the problem effectively. Both cases result in people being killed, injured, or economically harmed.

The backfire effect


Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation

-- from The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowski (Skeptical Science; 27 Nov 2011)

Cook and Lewandowski illustrate presentation of information in the way they describe in this infographic (right) about the consensus on global warming.

(The Oatmeal; May 2017)

Comic artist The Oatmeal created this graphic illustration of the backfire effect.

Identity Protective Cognition

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School [website]

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are causing global warming; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.Project members are using the methods of various disciplines -- including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science -- to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates. The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decisionmaking by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking.

Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition by Dan M. Kahan (Yale University - Law School) in SSRN on 24 May 2017 [link]

This paper supplies a compact synthesis of the empirical literature on misconceptions of and misinformation about decision-relevant science. The incidence and impact of misconceptions and misperceptions, the article argues, are highly conditional on identity protective cognition. Identity protective cognition refers to the tendency of culturally diverse individuals to selectively credit and dismiss evidence in patterns that reflect the beliefs that predominate in their group. On issues that provoke identity-protective cognition, the members of the public most adept at avoiding misconceptions of science are nevertheless the most culturally polarized. Individuals are also more likely to accept misinformation and resist the correction of it when that misinformation is identity-affirming rather than identity-threatening. Effectively counteracting these dynamics, the paper argues, requires more than simply supplying citizens with correct information. It demands in addition the protection of the science communication environment from toxic social meanings that fuse competing understandings of fact with diverse citizens’ cultural identities.

Dan Kahan: Science Literacy, Numeracy and Climate Change Risk Perceptions; GarrisonInstitute; YouTube; 2 Mar 2012 [video]

Dan Kahan of Yale University suggests that evidence from a large survey of U.S. adults reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level and the common level. Kahan argues that dispelling the "tragedy of the risk-perception commons," should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

Conflict framing

In an article in The Conversation, "Calling it a ‘war on science’ has consequences", John Besley, Bruce Hardy, Meghnaa Tallapragada, and Shupei Yuan caution:

While we may fully agree as individuals that current approaches to science policy seem deeply problematic, we also wonder as communication scholars whether it makes strategic sense to call the current situation a “war.” Communication experts have long expressed concerns that framing an issue as a conflict might make finding a reasonable path forward harder by suggesting that people need to choose sides and vanquish their opponents in order to succeed.

Building on such arguments, our new research suggests that Americans may see scientists’ choice to accuse conservatives of waging a “war on science” as relatively aggressive compared to potential alternative ways of describing the current situation. In turn, this perceived aggressiveness may harm the credibility of scientists in conservative audiences that already have doubts about them.

And in an article in the AAAS' journal Science, "Why fighting anti-vaxxers and climate change doubters often backfires", Jon Cohen writes:

If there’s a war on science, it’s not just one war. And branding people who disagree with you about vaccines, climate change, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as the enemy may be unwittingly fueling the conflicts. Those were some of the arguments made at a session here today at the annual meeting of AAAS

Iida Ruishalme also cautions against entering into conflict with those who have differing beliefs in her piece "Injecting kindness into the debate" on her Thoughtscapism blog:

Duty calls - xkcd.png

Vaccines are a topic that stir up a lot of emotions. How should we talk about them? Will anything we do make a difference? I think a useful perspective on the topic comes from framing the question somewhat differently: can we make a difference by the way behave in our interactions with other people? When I first encountered vaccine skepticism at a mommy-group, I found myself on a furious Google and PubMed-fest, pasting from scientific sources and official health authorities. The thread went south. The worst names we called each other may only have been ‘irresponsible’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘biased’, but going on 150 comments, each time that notification button turned red it added double digits to my blood pressure. I’d wake up at 3 am to feed the baby, unable to get back to sleep thinking of *how they could just not get it*. Giving up on sleep, I’d answer adjuvant questions at 3:45.

Karin Kirk also refers to Randall Munroe's classic xkcd cartoon in an article "How to identify people open to evidence about climate change" (Yale Climate Connections; 19 Nov 2018) in which she identifies a spectrum of persuadability amongst participants in debates such as on global heating:

Spectrum of persuadability - Karin Kirk.jpg

People resist climate information for varying reasons. Start by understanding your audience. Who’s who in the hierarchy of resistance

  • Bystanders
  • Informed but idle
  • Uninformed – People who truly don’t know
  • ‘Honestly’ misinformed
  • Party-line follower
  • Entrenched ideologue
  • Troll

Dunning Kruger Effect

We Are All Confident Idiots DAVID DUNNING; 27 OCT 2014

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. A leading researcher on the psychology of human wrongness sets us straight.

Social media

Social media messages help reduce meat consumption University of Bath; 11 Dec 2020

A new study demonstrates the success of direct messages sent via Facebook chat in reducing the amount of red and processed meat in our diets.

Sending direct messages on social media informing people of the negative health and environmental impacts of consuming meat has proven successful at changing eating habits, according to a new study from environmental psychologist Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh.

The research showed that sending direct messages twice a day through Facebook Messenger led to a significant reduction in the amount of red and processed meat participants consumed over a two week / 14-day period.

Participants reported, on average, eating between seven and eight portions of red or processed meat during the previous week before the Facebook messages were sent, which then dropped to between four and five portions during the second week of the intervention and stayed at roughly the same level one month after.

Furthermore, the intervention led to an observed ‘behavioural spillover’ effect in which the participants indicated a desire to also reduce other types of meat they would consume in the future, alongside dairy products.

The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.


Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds James Clear

Clear discusses social pressures to conform to certain beliefs, how friendship/trusted communicators helps to change minds, and how repeating false ideas - even to debunk them - helps them to persist.

The Shock of the New: Finding a Circuit Breaker for Health Fears Around New Technology Ketan Joshi·In; The Wheeler Centre - Health & medicine; 13 Apr 2015

Often, despite the evidence, new technology provokes anxieties around human health. As Ketan Joshi explains, there's more to this fear than errant logic — and symptoms of ill health can even be induced by it. But, in the case of large-scale developments like wind farms, there are simple and practical ways to improve the experience of communities living nearby.

Persuasion: Fascinating Study Shows How To Open A Closed Mind Stephen J. Meyer; Forbes; 12 Jun 2014

So how can we get people to see things our way? Researchers Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth University and Jason Reifler from Georgia State considered that question in a context where convictions tend to be especially resistant to facts: politics. They ran experiments where they presented people with information that contradicted their political attitudes. They deliberately chose topics that were highly emotional – highly polarizing issues that make people really dig in their heels. ... They tested three different strategies:

  • Presenting a paragraph of text that summarized the factual evidence
  • Presenting the evidence in a chart
  • Building up subjects’ self-esteem so they’d feel less threatened.

The least effective approach was explaining the facts in words. Building up subjects’ self-esteem didn’t work very well either. The most effective of the three techniques was simply presenting the information in a simple chart like the one below.

Socially constructed silence? Protecting policymakers from the unthinkable. PAUL HOGGETT and ROSEMARY RANDALL;; 6 Jun 2016

In 2013-14 we carried out interviews with leading UK climate scientists and communicators to explore how they managed the ethical and emotional challenges of their work. ... a picture emerged of a community which still identified strongly with an idealised picture of scientific rationality, in which the job of scientists is to get on with their research quietly and dispassionately. As a consequence, this community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is now attracting.

Me vs. We: Rethinking Personal Guilt Daisy Simmons; Yale Climate Connections; 10 Aug 2016

New research suggests that people donate more money to a climate cause when they're thinking about collective rather than personal responsibility for the problem.

People Can Handle the Truth About the Environment Mark Buchanan; Bloomberg; 27 Dec 2017

Some scientists think that humans can’t handle the truth about the damage they are doing to the environment -- that findings must be sugar-coated lest people lose the hope needed to act.

They should listen to psychologists and stop holding back.

Earlier this year, the journalist David Wallace-Wells examined some of the more extreme possible consequences of climate change, including collapsing food supplies, perpetual war and extreme heat making cities uninhabitable. Climate skeptics were predictably outraged, but some scientists also criticized the article for scaring people. "The most motivating emotions,” they claimed, “are worry, interest and hope.” Fear, they argued, tends to make people disengage and dismiss the issue.

Is that true? Not really. In a recent paper, the psychologist Daniel Chapman and co-authors argue that this oversimplifies how emotions influence our actions. They aren't like buttons that can be pushed to trigger a certain behavior. Rather, they act in a subtle way, tagging information in our memory with emotive tones, or influencing how we might seek out further information. As a result, any simple recipe for emotional persuasion -- say, being negative or positive -- is unlikely to have the desired effect.

Finding common ground amid climate controversy Generating productive conversations - ranters need not apply - and finding shared values on climate issues IS possible. Karin Kirk; Yale Climate Connections; 3 Apr 2018

It’s not difficult to get a sense of that stalemate while skimming comments on social media or dodging the topic at a family gathering. But climate change also offers tantalizing opportunities for finding common ground: energy efficiency is something few argue against, for example. The notions of stewardship of the planet and clean energy enjoy broad acceptance across the U.S. So can areas of general agreement serve as a launch pad to venture into trickier, more polarizing aspects of climate change? Will people join a conversation with those holding different viewpoints? Would mutual understanding be possible?

In challenging times for public discourse, this project offered an opportunity for people to interact with those beyond their usual ideological sphere in an attempt to resolve differences.

The project involved learning how to uncover common ground between varying ideologies. Collaborators helped refine the questionnaire used to invite participants and measure their ideologies. Once the methods were firmed-up, pairs of people engaged in live conversations via video conference, leading to a series of articles along the way.

With each dialogue, the approach has yielded worthwhile insights, and, taken together, promising themes.

Should I tell my Republican friend that her Florida mansion is doomed by sea-level rise? Sara Peach; Yale Climate Connections; 24 Sep 2018

My friend is a Republican who owns a very expensive mansion on Fisher Island in Miami. I’m fairly sure my friend believes that climate change is real but does not know how serious the situation may get within her or her children’s lifetimes. What year will I tell her is the last I’ll be able to visit her there, because it will be underwater? How many years ahead of that will she need to sell it before it’ll be rendered worthless? I’m thinking of getting her a garden gnome wearing a snorkel. – Climate Concerned in New York City

Examining the Impact of Expert Voices: Communicating the Scientific Consensus on Genetically-modified Organisms Asheley R. Landrum, William K. Hallman, Kathleen Hall Jamieson] Environmental Communication; 24 Aug 2018

Scholars are divided over whether communicating to the public the existence of scientific consensus on an issue influences public acceptance of the conclusions represented by that consensus. Here, we examine the influence of four messages on perception and acceptance of the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs): two messages supporting the idea that there is a consensus that GMOs are safe for human consumption and two questioning that such a consensus exists. We found that although participants concluded that the pro-consensus messages made stronger arguments and were likely to be more representative of the scientific community’s attitudes, those messages did not abate participants’ concern about GMOs. In fact, people’s pre-manipulation attitudes toward GMOs were the strongest predictor of of our outcome variables (i.e. perceived argument strength, post-message GMO concern, perception of what percent of scientists agree). Thus, the results of this study do not support the hypothesis that consensus messaging changes the public’s hearts and minds, and provide more support, instead, for the strong role of motivated reasoning.

Genetically modified food opponents know less than they think, research finds Science Daily; 14 Jan 2019

The people who hold the most extreme views opposing genetically modified (GM) foods think they know most about GM food science, but actually know the least, according to new research.

The paper, published Monday in Nature Human Behaviour, was a collaboration between researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania.

Marketing and psychology researchers asked more than 2,000 U.S. and European adults for their opinions about GM foods. The surveys asked respondents how well they thought they understood genetically modified foods, then tested how much they actually knew with a battery of true-false questions on general science and genetics.

Despite a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe for human consumption and have the potential to provide significant nutritional benefits, many people oppose their use. More than 90 percent of study respondents reported some level of opposition to GM foods.

The paper's key finding is that the more strongly people report being opposed to GM foods, the more knowledgeable they think they are on the topic, but the lower they score on an actual knowledge test.

"This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism," said Phil Fernbach, the study's lead author and professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business. "Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do."

A potential consequence of the phenomenon, according to the paper's authors, is that the people who know the least about important scientific issues may be likely to stay that way, because they may not seek out -- or be open to -- new knowledge.

"Our findings suggest that changing peoples' minds first requires them to appreciate what they don't know," said study co-author Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business PhD candidate. "Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus."

The paper's authors also explored other issues, like gene therapy and climate change denial. They found the same results for gene therapy.

However, the pattern did not emerge for climate change denial. The researchers hypothesize that the climate change debate has become so politically polarized that people's attitudes depend more on which group they affiliate with than how much they know about the issue.

Fernbach and Light plan to follow this paper with more research on how their findings play into other issues like vaccinations, nuclear power and homeopathic medicine.

This research was funded by the Humility & Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut, the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at CU Boulder, the National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W) Pekka Niittyvirta & Timo Aho; Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre; 8 May 2018 – 1 May 2019

Installation projecting horizontal beam of light marking expected level of sea level rise due to climate change.

lines of light mark inevitable sea level rise from climate change designboom

at high tide, three synchronized lines of light activate in the outer hebrides off the west coast of scotland. lines (57° 59 ́N, 7° 16 ́W) by finnish artists pekka niittyvirta and timo aho wrap around two structures and along the base of a mountain landscape. everything below these lines of light will one day be underwater.

Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe: 'The true threat is the delusion that our opinion of science somehow alters its reality' JOÃO MEDEIROS; Wired; 9 Dec 2017

In her 2009 book, co-authored with husband Andrew Farley, Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katharine Hayhoe wrote: “Most Christians are not scientists, and it’s hard to say how many scientists are Christians. In our family, we are both.” The Texas Tech atmospheric physicist, who’s also an Evangelical Christian, has long been one of the most vocal evangelists for the environment. Hayhoe has been featured in the James Cameron-produced TV series Years of Living Dangerously and once nominated as one of the most influential people in the world by TIME. She talks to WIRED about president Trump, clean energy, and, of course, climate change.

Video: Katharine Hayhoe & George Marshall on how to talk about climate change Climate Outreach; 5 Dec 2017

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and Christian based in Texas. She has been named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People for her ability to talk about climate change beyond the green bubble in a way that is effective and compassionate.

We were delighted to host her in partnership with the University Church of St Mary in Oxford, for a climate conversation with Climate Outreach founder George Marshall and with the hundreds of people who joined us.

Children and Parents

Kid Climate Educators Open Adult Eyes Adam Levy; Scientific American; 15 May 2019

A study finds that kids, especially daughters, are effective at teaching their parents about climate issues.

Children can foster climate change concern among their parents Danielle F. Lawson, Kathryn T. Stevenson, M. Nils Peterson, Sarah J. Carrier, Renee L. Strnad, Erin Seekamp; Nature Climate Change; 6 May 2019

The collective action that is required to mitigate and adapt to climate change is extremely difficult to achieve, largely due to socio-ideological biases that perpetuate polarization over climate change. Because climate change perceptions in children seem less susceptible to the influence of worldview or political context, it may be possible for them to inspire adults towards higher levels of climate concern, and in turn, collective action. Child-to-parent intergenerational learning—that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviours from children to parents—may be a promising pathway to overcoming socio-ideological barriers to climate concern. Here we present an experimental evaluation of an educational intervention designed to build climate change concern among parents indirectly through their middle school-aged children in North Carolina, USA. Parents of children in the treatment group expressed higher levels of climate change concern than parents in the control group. The effects were strongest among male parents and conservative parents, who, consistent with previous research, displayed the lowest levels of climate concern before the intervention. Daughters appeared to be especially effective in influencing parents. Our results suggest that intergenerational learning may overcome barriers to building climate concern.

Truth Decay

Truth Decay : An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life Jennifer Kavanagh, Michael D. Rich; RAND Corporation

Over the past two decades, national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by "Truth Decay," defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. These trends have many causes, but this report focuses on four: characteristics of human cognitive processing, such as cognitive bias; changes in the information system, including social media and the 24-hour news cycle; competing demands on the education system that diminish time spent on media literacy and critical thinking; and polarization, both political and demographic. The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.

This report explores the causes and consequences of Truth Decay and how they are interrelated, and examines past eras of U.S. history to identify evidence of Truth Decay's four trends and observe similarities with and differences from the current period. It also outlines a research agenda, a strategy for investigating the causes of Truth Decay and determining what can be done to address its causes and consequences.


Men Resist Green Behavior as Unmanly Aaron R. Brough, James E.B. Wilkie; Scientific American; 26 Dec 2017

Women have long surpassed men in the arena of environmental action; across age groups and countries, females tend to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Compared to men, women litter less, recycle more, and leave a smaller carbon footprint. Some researchers have suggested that personality differences, such as women’s prioritization of altruism, may help to explain this gender gap in green behavior.

Our own research suggests an additional possibility: men may shun eco-friendly behavior because of what it conveys about their masculinity. It’s not that men don’t care about the environment. But they also tend to want to feel macho, and they worry that eco-friendly behaviors might brand them as feminine.

The research, conducted with three other colleagues, consisted of seven experiments involving more than 2,000 American and Chinese participants. We showed that there is a psychological link between eco-friendliness and perceptions of femininity. Due to this “green-feminine stereotype,” both men and women judged eco-friendly products, behaviors, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. In one experiment, participants of both sexes described an individual who brought a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store as more feminine than someone who used a plastic bag—regardless of whether the shopper was a male or female. In another experiment, participants perceived themselves to be more feminine after recalling a time when they did something good versus bad for the environment.