Freestanding microphone on green background

A common fault in science communication is talking only to those who love science and thinking you have reached a wider audience. Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty

As a professional science communicator who has watched many scientists struggle to convey their research effectively, I decided it was time to apply some of the principles of good science to communication. I wanted to tap into the wealth of evidence-based research that exists on how to improve it. There is a lot out there — but it is unrealistic to expect any busy scientist to comprehend studies in science communication as well. So I started writing a book that might help scientists to do just that.

The more I researched and wrote, and the more scientists I talked to, the more convinced I became of how urgently such a book was needed. We live in an era in which personal feelings, for many members of the public, often have as much weight as scientific evidence and objective facts. We need to know how to work with this, not against it.

A few key principles that arose from my research include:

‘The public’ is not a single entity. The diversity of the public can be understood as many ‘communities’. As social psychologist David Kipnis pointed out in 1996, we all like to hang out with people who are similar to us. In the modern world that can be at work, socially or online. And we tend to highlight the differences of people who are not like us. In scientific terms, we are all heterogeneous, but are drawn to homogeneous groups. These groups are called segments; understanding them is useful for learning how to communicate effectively. Many studies in different countries, including a project investigating US views on global warming (Global Warming’s Six Americas at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) and a 2014 UK report on public attitudes to science, show there are six key segments when it comes to opinions about science and technology. I have captured these using the following short descriptors:

1. The fans — who love everything related to science.

2. People in the middle — who have some interest in science.

3. Those who say ‘I don’t get it’ — who are interested in science, but have trouble understanding it.

4. ‘Too busy’ — those who don’t have the time to pay attention to science.

5. Distrustful people— who don’t trust science and often hold anti-scientific beliefs.

6. ‘I know it all already’ — those who feel they have nothing new to learn from science, but often have extreme anti-scientific beliefs.

One of the most common faults in science communication is talking to fans of science and thinking you have reached the wider community. It is also important to know who your audience is so you can tailor your messages accordingly.

When information is complex, people make decisions based on their values and beliefs. Many people who oppose the science on climate change, genetically modified food, infant vaccination or water fluoridation rarely make their minds up on the basis of any scientific data. Instead, they choose what to agree with according to how well it aligns with their existing world views or values. This has been shown repeatedly by researchers such as lawyer and psychologist Dan Kahan at Yale. Research also shows that because many people seek affirmation of their attitudes or views — no matter how extreme — they tend to reject any information or facts that counter their beliefs1,2 . They then seek out and cling to any data they can find that support their point of view, regardless of how credible the source is.

Facts and evidence rarely help as much as scientists think. Scientific information hardly ever changes a mind that’s already been made up, so don’t rely on data. Rather, find out what an individual’s values are, and discuss those instead. Or, even better, frame your discussions to align with their views. For instance, somebody who does not believe in climate change, and who has pro-industrialization and development values, is more likely to be engaged in a conversation around sustainable investments. They can then be drawn into a conversation on sustainability without you mentioning climate change.

People trust others whose values mirror their own. Trust is not given — at best it is lent, and can be withdrawn at any time. However, people do tend to look for others ‘like them’ to lend their trust to. If you are not talking to an audience that is like you, you need to find points of commonality. For instance, if you are talking to someone who is against infant vaccinations, you need to establish the common ground that you both care greatly about the welfare of children. If you are speaking to somebody who does not trust science or scientists, look for areas of commonality in being a parent, or a gardener, or whatever that person values.

Tell a good story. Most effective science communication really comes down to just telling a good story. Knowing your audience and your communication objective is crucial, but if you can turn your message into a story, it has a much better chance of being accepted. As US psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock have pointed out, neuroscience tells us that stories increase people’s likelihood of remembering information, reduce counter-arguments, and are more compelling than facts and more convincing than data3.

It can be complex to work with all of these principles, but communicating science successfully is important and must be effective if scientists hope to combat false information.