Jan 25 2016

The Challenges of Science Communication

Brian Resnick has written an interesting article on Vox in which he relates 11 common journalistic errors in reporting social science news, according to 20 social scientists that he spoke to. The points are good ones, and most of them apply to communicating all science, not just the social sciences.

The core of the issue is the essential tension between science and journalism. Science proceeds slowly and cautiously, is very conservative in its claims, and is skeptical toward any new finding (or at least it should be).

Journalists, however, want an exciting new and simple story. In fact bad science journalism is much closer to self-help gurus than to actual science – “do X and you will be happy.” I know that journalists often do not write their own headlines, and that there is a circle in skeptical hell dedicated to headline writers where they are tormented by the twin demons, Hype and Sensationalism.

To be fair, I also understand that we live in the real world where ratings and clicks matter to the bottom line. This has been made very clear to me since I have been running my own science Facebook page (The Skeptics’ Guide page). This gave me the experience of posting 6-8 science and skeptical news items per day, adjusting variables, and seeing directly how much reach each post gets.

What is absolutely clear is that there is a direct relationship between the number of clicks and likes an item gets and several variables: how controversial or emotional the subject matter is, how exciting the news item is, how “click baity” the headline is, how simplistic the message is, and the presence of cats in any form.

Memes do the best – an interesting picture with a punchy sentiment. Infographics are also popular, as are lists. These are all ways to make information bite-sized and easily consumable in a fast-paced world, in a medium with a lot of competition for eyeballs.

Don’t worry – I have not succumbed to the dark side. My light saber glows a reassuring hue of arctic blue. The purpose of my Facebook page is not just to be popular, but to promote science and critical thinking. I have also discovered there is another way to be successful, but it takes a lot of thoughtful hard work.

It is possible, but very challenging, to present interesting science news items in a compelling way that sparks interest without compromising scientific or skeptical integrity. The fact is – science is damn exciting. You can convey this excitement, while putting a story into a proper scientific perspective.

Take the recent new items of a possible ninth planet discovered. What is more exciting than that – another planet in our solar system, 10 times the mass of Earth. This has not yet been confirmed. The claim is based on a computer model of the gravitational effects of known objects in the Kuiper belt.

The real challenge comes on slow news days, or when reports wonky articles that are fairly dense and esoteric.

Journalists are trained to ask certain questions, like, “why is this important, and why should people care.” When reporting science this leads them to common tropes. Every basic science advance dealing with cells apparently might one day lead to a cure for cancer. Every tiny bit of knowledge about viruses might cure the common cold. Apparently now every metamaterial discovery will result in an invisibility cloak. When in doubt, make the closest analogy to some iconic science-fiction technology, or in a pinch a superhero power.

Sometimes, a scientific discovery is interesting because it is a new discovery, not because it will lead directly to some tangential technology.

In addition to the points that Brian makes (I won’t repeat them here, just read his article), there are some additional bits of advice I would give science communicators.

Don’t focus on the tiny bit of speculation at the end of a study and run with that. Researchers will often include comments about directions for future research, or possible implications of their research. Don’t present that as if it is the result of the study.

Rather, ask the question – what does the data in this study actually say? If you don’t fully understand that, then you cannot competently report on the science.

Put science news stories into context. Is this a mainstream or minority opinion? What is the power of this one study? Are there other studies that come to different results? Does this actually change our thinking in this area? What are critics saying about the results?

In other words – every event or study in science is part of an unfolding messy process. Report the process. Don’t report the study in isolation, as if all by itself it fully establishes its conclusions.

Resist the urge to exaggerate our prior ignorance or the impact of the study.

And of course, be skeptical. Readers do appreciate skepticism. It makes them feel empowered to have some insight into what a bit of science actually means, and to have tools to understand what is and is not going on. This includes the ability to make sense of possibly misleading reporting on a story.

This takes time, and work, to slowly build a brand out of trust. Skepticism is not a wet blanket, it is empowering and exciting in its own way. It is also how science progresses, by removing the chaff. Another way to look at this is – how we know something is as (or even more) interesting than what we know.


Science journalism and science communication are extremely interesting and challenges endeavors. They also follow the general rule – 90% of everything is crap, or at least mediocre.

As an aside, this is almost trivially true. Our sensibilities, our calibration, is set by the best of something, the top 10%. The other 90% fails in comparison.

The real question is, is there any quality control or are there standards that maintain a reasonable quality for the average individual? You would’t want 90% of doctors to be incompetent. We also don’t want 90% of science journalists to be hacks.

While there are excellent science journalists out there, I do think we need greater quality control for the average or typical science journalist. In addition to simple quality control, there is also a system of perverse incentives. The system rewards (at least in the immediate term) sensational journalism and click-baity headlines. It takes true dedication to quality to eschew these quick tactics for a more lofty long-term goal.

There may never be a real solution to this inherent problem. However, the more consumers demand quality, the better that balance of incentives will be. In turn, that demand for quality is driven by quality journalism itself. Supply and demand feed off of each other.

It is my hope that scientist bloggers using social media to communicate quality science reporting will move the entire system in the direction of higher quality.



4 responses so far

4 Responses to “The Challenges of Science Communication”

  1. wellerpondon 25 Jan 2016 at 11:09 am

    Excellent article as always.

    I read a study from the Columbia Journalism Review awhile ago that said since 1989 the number of weekly newspapers featuring scientific developments has dropped from 95 to 19.

    That means it’s up the scientists themselves – not always equipped to clearly communicate their findings – or editors, which Dr. Novella just covered.

    No comment other than that certainly is part of the problem.

  2. MaryMon 25 Jan 2016 at 11:56 am

    I was in a discussion yesterday about a bit of scicomm that was delivered by TheSciBabe. It’s a takedown of some dangerous mommy bloggers who are misinforming people is a really serious way.

    This post had a lot more “reach” than a lot of other scicomm I see. This was also true of her wildly successful FoodBabe Gawker piece.

    But people don’t like the “tone”. And the argument included — well, yes, people might be hate-reading it, but that doesn’t count.

    It does count. There’s no single item that turns people around on an issue. Some former hate-readers come around to sanity. Some people can use these kinds of pieces to reach out to friends who are under the spell of these dangerous cranks. They need sources like Gawker and Cosmo and other attention grabbing stuff that some new communicators are doing.

    But we are running up against some Very Serious Scicomm People who want to keep doing what they’ve been doing (which isn’t working against the misinformers). They can’t ever show me evidence of what works in the current media environment. I get a lot of “scientists are doing it wrong” but nobody can show what’s better. I get obscure theoretical references to surveys of 48 white college students from the Journal of Communication.

    They also seem miffed that not all communication is supposed to persuade. Sometimes you have to support the base. Sometimes you have to do unpleasant things like expose cranks to raise awareness of the bad behavior.

    We are way behind on social media strategies. Cranks play the arena (and the vulnerable) like a violin. And stodgy scicomm nannies are offering nothing but tut-tutting. It’s why we are where we are.

  3. BBBlueon 25 Jan 2016 at 12:36 pm

    MaryM- “They can’t ever show me evidence of what works in the current media environment.” What kind of evidence would indicate that scicomm is “working”? Some indication that it is changing the minds of the misinformed? Is the goal of scicomm to inform or to change people’s minds?

    As has been discussed at length here and elsewhere, presenting the facts is often not the best way to change a person’s mind or their behavior. I think scicomm succeeds when it avoids hyperbole and fairly and accurately describes a subject with just a touch of enthusiasm for science sprinkled on top. That’s it, and if the accumulation of that fair and accurate information changes someone’s mind, well then, that’s gravy. However, if what one really wants to do is change minds and behaviours, then I think that falls into a realm more akin to advocacy and advertising than scicomm.

    Good scicomm represents the long game and requires great patience and persistence, which is one of the reasons why it is done poorly by journalists and editors.

  4. Pete Aon 25 Jan 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Those who think that there exists a ‘best recipe for changing minds’ have unwittingly committed a plethora of logical fallacies and cognitive errors in reaching their conclusion. All of which, perhaps, boil down to committing the fundamental attribution error:
    “As a simple example, consider a situation where Alice, a driver, is about to pass through an intersection. Her light turns green and she begins to accelerate, but another car drives through the red light and crosses in front of her. The fundamental attribution error may lead her to think that the driver of the other car was an unskilled or reckless driver. This will be an error if the other driver had a good reason for running the light, such as rushing a patient to the hospital. If this is the case and Alice had been driving the other car, she would have understood that the situation called for speed at the cost of safety, but when seeing it from the outside she was inclined to believe that the behavior of the other driver reflected their fundamental nature (having poor driving skills or a reckless attitude).”

    If my desire was to communicate in a style that I believed would be maximally effective, what does “maximally effective” even mean? Does it mean getting “likes” on social media; attracting more traffic to my website [hypothetical: I have neither social media accounts nor a website]; making a small difference to the majority of readers; or making a difference that drastically improves the quality of life of just one or a few people?

    It is so easy to lose sight of reality. Each and every one of us is simply one of circa 7.4 billion people on planet Earth — just a walking talking anecdote whom has a true significance of only 13.5 nano percent. There are two main ways of becoming more important than this base rate: genuinely doing our best to support, and to ease the suffering, of our current and future generations; becoming an apologist for a field of anti-science and/or religion that thrives on scaremongering. To those who feel a desire to point out that I’ve presented a false dichotomy, my excluded middle is: I don’t give a shit what you think!

    Horses for courses.

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