In 2008, I discussed with Big Think why popularizers like Brian Greene, E.O. Wilson, and Carl Sagan are so effective at engaging the public on complex science subjects. I also described how research can inform science organizations and others institutions in doing systematically what these great popularizers have learned to do intuitively. Below is video of the interview followed by a transcript. Also see this book chapter in which I discuss how the National Academies used research to inform education outreach on the teaching of evolution in schools.

Question:

What are successful strategies for communicating science to the public?

Matthew Nisbet:

Well, I think someone like Brian Green or E.O. Wilson intuitively they understand this framing process. Framing is part of human communicating and you can’t avoid it. So, they’ve been very good at taking complex science and putting it in a mental box for their audience, presenting it in a way that connects to something they already care about or is incredibly inspiring or motivating. A lot of science communication is emotional. The first thing you need to do again, to spark learning is to spark motivation. Carl Sagan was a master at this. He was able to take science and really talk about the wonder of science, put it in the context of social progress. Through science, we’re understanding the world around us and we’re solving problems and this is why you should care about it and it’s also really interesting. And he was a master translator and he talked about science through really narratives, through the power of story telling.

And so people like E.O. Wilson, people like Carl Sagan, people like Brian Green, they have a natural intuitive ability to take science and put it in a context that their intended audience understands that fits with the context of the media through which they’re communication, whether it’s “The Daily Show” or it’s “PBS Nova” and intuitively they figured this out. And one of the things that we’re recommending is that not everyone has that skill or ability. You can’t expect every scientist to be able to figure this out. And it’s really up to leading science organizations to help train scientists in how to do this and also to do the research that inform scientists, what’s the best way to present a complex, sometimes problematic issue.

A great example is what the National Academies recently did in doing audience research on how to structure and tailor a report that they produced on the teaching of evolution in schools. They wanted to reach or go beyond their natural audience that usually reads the National Academies report. They wanted to produce a report on what is evolution and why it’s important to teach it in schools that could be used by judges, school board members, local journalists, PTA members, and instead of just relying on their intuition or personal experience to figure out the best way to present that report and to publicize it and to translate it for the media, they started with focus groups and then they moved to survey research to specifically test different types of frames for presenting the value of teaching evolution. And somewhat non-intuitively what they discovered was for this non traditional audience, what really kind of opened up recognition that it was important to teach evolution and only evolution in schools, was to talk about how evolutionary science is the building block for so many advances in medicine. In fact if we didn’t understand evolutionary science, we wouldn’t understand how to solve a problem like bird flu, for example.

And then somewhat non-surprisingly the second kind of package or frame that was very convincing to the public to support teaching evolution in schools was to reinforce for them or to tell them that for many religious traditions, there’s actually no conflict between the teaching of evolution and their religious tradition which in fact, may people are not aware of that because one of the problems in communicating about science and religion is that the two loudest voices on this topic are the tail end of the spectrum on the issue. So, on one side you have the Christian Fundamentalists who argue that science undermines morality and undermines religion. On the other side you have the very loud voice of the New Atheist movement, scientists who are critics of religion who say actually that the implications of science is that there no God and that God is actually a scientific question. Those are by far the two visible voices and lost in between is kind of this vast invisible middle of leading science organizations such as the National Academies, leading religious leaders such as the Pope and many religious traditions who say in fact actually, no, evolutionary science is not in conflict with a great majority of religious traditions, though few members of the public even realize that or often hear that by way of the media.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. (2010). Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement. In L. Kahlor & P. Stout (Eds.), Communicating Science: New Agendas in Communication (pp 40-67). New York: Routledge. [PDF]