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Adding a personal backstory could boost your scientific credibility with the public

Two science communicators explain how researchers who present themselves as curious, fallible humans might be perceived as more authentic.
Sara Reardon is a freelance journalist in Bozeman, Montana.

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Female professor talking to students in college classroom

To get the public to trust your work, let them in on your personal journey in science.Credit: Getty

Scientists, especially those who study climate change and other controversial issues, often struggle to persuade a sceptical public to accept their findings. A study has found that even the most unbiased methods and carefully communicated data might not be convincing if the audience doesn’t trust the person who produced the research.

Co-authors Lise Saffran, who studies public health, and Amanda Hinnant, a journalism researcher, both at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and their colleagues decided to explore new ways for scientists to connect with the public. In their study, they tested how 500 people, recruited through a website that crowdsources volunteers, responded to different ways in which researchers wrote about a non-controversial topic: plant science.

The team found that people were most receptive when an imaginary scientist told a story in first person about how they became interested in the topic. Here, the study authors lay out their inspiration for doing the work, and the implications of their findings.

What sparked your interest in the issue of credibility in science communication?

Amanda Hinnant: We’re trying to work out ways to talk and write about science that the public can relate to and understand. We want to tweak the message so that people don’t feel a barrier between themselves and the researcher.

A smiling woman on a red background.

Study co-author Amanda Hinnant.Credit: Shane Epping

People today are less trusting of authority and expertise. They don’t know whom to trust — so incorporating a shred of humanity into scientific writing might be one way for the public to feel like they can connect with a scientist and, on some level, trust that this person is authentic.

Scientists customarily don’t insert themselves into the story of their findings because it might lead to questions about whether they have authority to speak about a particular subject, and whether they are biased. We need to think about whether we’ve removed ourselves too far from the story, to the point that nobody believes us because they don’t see a human there.

Lise Saffran: Authenticity is becoming more important, rather than less. In the current environment, we’re exposed to all kinds of information and avatars — so people are increasingly valuing, looking for and yearning for real, non-fabricated, human, organic elements.

A smiling woman outside.

Study co-author Lise Saffran.Credit: Kim Wade/Silverbox Photographers

If you’re trying to advance science, and you’re staying out of the fray, your message won’t necessarily be competitive against all the other information out there.

How can a personalized story help with science communication?

AH: When people don’t know why you’re doing a particular type of research, they might fill in their own explanations. Such as, “Well, I don’t know why she’s passionate about plant life, but she must be getting paid by Monsanto.” With a facts-only style, it’s possible that people will come to their own conclusions about your motivation.

So if you provide people with an explanation and insight into where you’re coming from, that might replace some of the negative explanations that can flood in.

LS: In doing our work, we were thinking about the difference between authenticity and transparency. If you’re transparent, you report that you’re receiving funding for this research from Monsanto, and people will have a reaction based on that information. But if you say, “I got interested in this because I wanted to travel in space, and plants are so diverse that it’s almost like seeing aliens,” it adds another dimension. It’s not necessarily going to cancel out the concerns — but it does humanize you.

Does it help when scientists tell a personal story about politicized topics, such as climate change or genetically modified organisms?

LS: Our next phase is to take what we’ve got from this first paper and examine whether it holds true for scientific topics that have been politicized. There are a lot of other potential nuances in that equation.

Initially, when we repeated the experiment with an imaginary scientist talking about the origin of his interest in climate science, adding that origin story made the audiences perceive the scientist as having less integrity. And we’re trying to work out whether that particular approach has a ‘boomerang effect’ on people — causing them to think that the scientist is trying to trick them into sympathizing.

So we are doing another round in which the scientist tells a story that relates less directly to how they became interested in climate and more directly to their own development as a scientist. The underlying assumption here is not that the audience hears the story and thinks, “Oh, I also was interested in that topic.” That’s not the point of connection. It’s that “I believe that he was interested in it. I also have been interested in things, and in that way, we are similar and human.”

Should all scientists start communicating in this way?

AH: We tested this with a scientist whose gender, race, ethnicity, status at their organization and other social factors were not described. So we don’t want to say this works for everyone, when a person’s background affects how they are perceived.

We’re not suggesting that the way that people write scientific articles, or how peer-reviewed journals operate, needs to change. But as a potential communication strategy, adding more of the scientist’s background story could be something to experiment with.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00857-0

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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