Science Communication in Theory and Practice

The Background to Effective Science Communication by the Public (Stocklmayer)

Science Communication with the Public: a Cross Cultural Event (Aikenhead)

More than Story Telling – Reflecting on Popular Science (Turney)

Conversations in a Landscape of Science and Magic: Thinking about Science Communication (Sless & Shrensky)

By: Cameron A. Straughan

August 12, 2002

I chose to read Science Communication in Theory and Practice since the title itself suggests that it provides a good, well-rounded grounding in science communication. Accordingly, I expected to learn more about the theoretical side of science communication, which I greatly need since I have no previous educational background in communications. In addition, I wanted to learn some new techniques for my documentary and other communications projects. Bringing together both the theory and the practice, I hoped the book would further my understanding of how science communication can be improved thus, by proxy, improving on the overall risk communication paradigm.

I found the book to be a particularly valuable resource since it was published recently (2001), contains recent case studies and examples, and even includes Canadian examples. In fact, the book called itself a “first”, which I believe is true. Science communication is, after all, a relatively new discipline that has a tense relationship with science – an old, well-established paradigm that is generally resistant to change. Since science communication is very complex and replete with tensions, the examples provided became essential to furthering my understanding.

Overall, since I could relate to the examples provided – both temporally and spatially – I found the material much easier to digest; it related directly to my experiences and knowledge. Interestingly, that’s one of the key elements of good science communication – relate the material to the audience’s everyday life. In this regard, the book itself is a highly successful communication.

Having read the four papers for this week’s report, I found the book to be holistic and dynamic in approach. I particularly liked how the book openly invited questions and reflection. It was also written in an enthusiastic style that I found to be both provocative and encouraging. I greatly appreciated the ties the authors (and editors) made between science and culture. Science, like art, can be worth appreciating for its own sake, without an immediate practical use.

The four articles I read this week were all well-researched papers with extensive references. While there was no quantitative research performed, the authors did examine some illustrations and the linguistics of selected texts. Basically, the authors condensed a great deal of information into succinct papers that presented a strong historical, theoretical, and practical view of science communication.

I found Stocklmayer’s paper The Background to Effective Science Communication by the Public particularly interesting because it effectively pointed out the gender bias inherent in the sciences. The irony being that while science is supposed to be objective and unbiased, it is inherently masculine to the point that it excludes many women from joining its ranks.

I’ve only become aware of this bias within the last ten years – probably because I am a male, thus I’ve never had the problem, and early in my career I spent most of my time working in “politically correct” government offices. This problem first came to my attention back in 1995, when a colleague at the University of Windsor complained about the sexist views of some of her male colleagues. However, this type of sexism was further illuminated in Cate Sandiland’s course Nature and the Environment in Western Political Thought. Obviously, there is still a need to democratize science. It’s incredible to think that these problems still exist. I think this is a testament to the fact that science is an old, unflinching paradigm – possibly more conservative than most major religious organizations.

While on the topic of changing paradigms, much of Stocklmayer’s paper reminded me of what I learnt in Management in Turbulent Environments and my current Action Learning course. In fact, constructivism seems synonymous with Action Learning. Constructivism also implies a need to know the audience well before communication commences. This is similar to the call for cultural analysis put forth in Risk and Culture.

Stocklmayer also introduced me to the importance of children’s alternative conceptions of science. I’ve often thought that scientists should make a particularly strong effort to communicate with children, as opposed to adults, since they are still developing their biases and points of view. Thus, intervention is still possible/practical, as opposed to trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

It’s particularly important that good science communication be directed toward youths since they keep science separate from their common sense world (to be fair, I think many adults would as well). Accordingly, many see science as boring and of no real value. If efforts aren’t made to alleviate these misconceptions/preconceptions, then the children will grow up with ingrained beliefs regarding science that will be almost impossible to change. In this regard, alternative conceptions of science are – once again – rather like religion. It would be very difficult for a communicator to get an individual to change staunch, age-old beliefs.

While on the topic of communicating science to children, my documentary will highlight how grade seven students view wolves. I think their views are highly relevant and important, because they are exposed to so much culture and media nowadays. Also, I think that when children are involved in science communication then adults become interested, owing to paternal and maternal concerns. Thus, communicating science to children has a two-pronged effect: it educates children and it gets the parents involved and interested, thus educating them as well.

I also liked Stocklmayer’s description of how scientific lingo can be confused with lay lingo (i.e., the multiple meanings of terms like “current” or “cell”, depending on the context). Perhaps scientists should present a table with their definitions on one side and the lay definitions on the other, thereby clearing up any confusion.

In addition to the theory, Stocklmayer provided me with some good, practical tips for my documentary. In fact, her advice for good science communication could easily be translated to any type of production – that is: keep the math and formulae to a minimum, use straightforward language (i.e., assume a reading age of 12 years old), consider alternative conceptions, include some introductory hooks (in film lingo, these are called plot turning points), and keep it simple.

Overall, if my documentary is to communicate effectively, it must increase the
need-to-know and nurture it. The topic – the wolves of Algonquin Park – must be related to the audience’s lives and/or recent events. Also, it should be shown to impact our shared futures in some fashion.

Aikenhead’s paper Science Communication with the Public: a Cross Cultural Event greatly appealed to me because of my interest in culture and how it affects science communication. Aikenhead describes science as a culture onto itself, with its own system of language and symbols. However, Aikenhead acknowledges that science culture is separate from public culture. My idea to utilize pop culture techniques in my documentary would help bridge this gap. I’ve long asserted that the techniques used in mainstream culture should be utilized to communicate scientific information to the public.

Aikenhead says that cultural barriers and borders must be recognized or miscommunication will occur. I like to think that I can cross these cultural borders easily, and I hope that my continued studies at York will further my ability to do so.

For example, courses like Culture and the Environment have prepared me for this role. My interviews with First Nations Elders have also helped prepare me. My past work communicating science to lay audiences is yet another example of crossing cultural boundaries – in this case, crossing from the culture of science to public culture. In addition, I’d like to learn Spanish with the long term goal of working for the United Nations in some aspect of environmental communications. Thus, developing the ability to cross cultural boundaries easily is very important to both my Plan of Study and my future career.

Aikenhead’s emphasis on converting scientific knowledge to public practice is rather like the ideas expounded in my Action Learning course. In fact, his idea of a “cultural broker” sounds very much like an action learning facilitator. If anything, this paper – along with several others I’ve read – has justified my taking Action Learning. In fact, my current Action Learning project is to facilitate the creation of a video library of First Nations knowledge.

Aikenhead comes right out and says that scientific communication needs cultural brokers. I found this very reassuring. Again, the more I read about risk communication and science communication, the more certain I am that my career is moving in the right direction.

Turney’s paper More than Story Telling – Reflecting on Popular Science provided a detailed analysis of popular science texts. I was interested in reading it, since I figured that what makes popular science work would also make my documentary work.

The article did provide me with some practical advice, such as create differences, construct entities, transfer knowledge, put meaning into matter, and – if possible – relate the communication to the universe (i.e., metascience). However, the paper also pointed to problems I may face when trying to determine the effectiveness of my documentary.

Along these lines, Sless and Shrensky’s paper Conversations in a Landscape of Science and Magic: Thinking about Science Communication succeeded in further illuminating the problems inherent when accessing the effectiveness of communications. More importantly, I felt that this paper provided me with a very balanced, critical look at science communication.

Having read so many articles about science communication, the majority of which conclude that scientists must make more efforts to communicate, it’s easy to lose sight of the limitations of communication. Communication is not a magic bullet.

As I’ve stated in some of my early reports, communication must be part of a more holistic approach that includes considering audience culture and preconceptions. Communication alone will not solve the problems. It is merely a part of the overall risk/science communication paradigm. In fact, it is a popular misconception among scientists that if they communicate their findings then the audience will absorb the information easily. However, according to Sless and Shrensky, rarely has communication been shown to affect behaviour. In fact, mass media is limited to having small, unpredictable effects on audiences. Yet, communicators ignore this and go on spending great deals of money under the assumption that their efforts will pay off.

If it is very difficult to show that mass media is impacting audiences, it will likely be even more difficult to demonstrate the effectiveness of my documentary. Sless and Shrensky do, however, suggest a remedy.

They view science communication as not just validating science, but a shared social experience with audiences. Accordingly, communication can not be reduced to mere psychological or social factors. That is, communication should not be reductionist – like science itself is. Sless and Shrensky recommend that communication be dynamic, interactive, and relational. Thus, communication can only be studied as it occurs. This means that surveys (alone) may not be a useful indicator of effectiveness. If I am to judge the effectiveness of my documentary, I must do so while the audience is watching it. In effect, this would be an in situ study using direct observation.

Along these lines, maybe I can accomplish an in situ study via audience buzzers. For example, whenever they see something they like, they could buzz it in. Holding down on the buzzer for a longer period of time means they really like it. At any rate, Sless and Shrensky state that science communicators can not just be observers or surveyors; instead, they must be a participant or a facilitator. Interestingly, this new role they are suggesting relates back to my Action Learning course and it’s emphasis on facilitating community action, thereby letting their own ideas come through.

Overall, I think that Science Communication in Theory and Practice is an excellent compliment to my readings to date. My only criticism (so far) is that there are many spelling and/or typographical errors throughout the text. Considering that the book is about effective communication, this does not encourage confidence. That aside, the book has inspired some questions.

Regarding Aikenhead’s paper, I wonder if a “cultural broker” would be viewed as merely an agent of western hegemony and imperialism. Even the term “broker” has negative connotations for me; I think it’s an unfortunate choice on the author’s part. It brings to mind corporate and financial interests. Aside from the nomenclature, I think the idea of cultural brokers is easier said than done. Since many cultures perceive globalisation as a major threat, I wonder how many people would be willing to put much stock (excuse the pun) in a cultural broker from a western nation.

In conclusion, Science Communication in Theory and Practice has – to date – provided me with a strong, well-rounded grounding in science communication. Most of what I’ve read can be applied to my documentary and other communications projects. The concise combination of theory and the practice, combined with a healthy skepticism regarding the effectiveness of communication, has furthered my understanding of the tensions and complexities inherent in both risk and science communication paradigms. I sense that I must be fully aware of these tensions and complexities before I can consider putting the theory into practice.

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