A recent post over at the SciAm blogs raised the question of how scientists more effectively could reach the general public with their research. A depressingly large number of people – even in developed countries – are scientifically illiterate, and in these days of hot debates about global climate change, low-carb diets and other equally contentious issues, many scientists sigh and shake their heads when people won’t listen to the cold, hard facts.
A duty to educate
At CERG, we’re naturally very concerned about reaching the public with our results. In theory, exercise and cardiovascular disease should be easier topics to “sell” to the public than most, but the reality is that expert advice from research institutions often drowns in a cacophony of amateur “expert” opinions. Now, it would be one thing if our research were trivial, but the reality is that our findings ideally could improve public health significantly, and consequently it should be in everyone’s interest that the message gets out.* What to do?
In the recent post on cardiac stem cell therapy, I linked to a human-interest story from CNN. In academia, the formal research paper is alpha and omega to communicate your results to others, but in the popular media, this is how a vast majority of science stories are structured:
- Start with a two-sentence summary of the findings
- Tie in some patients that will/have benefitted from the discovery and/or a compelling story about the researchers’ personal trials in getting the work done (which constitutes the body of the work)
- Throw in occasional facts about the research, simplified extensively to seem not-boring to the average reader
- Conclude by tying the results back to the life of Average Joe.
If they’re really “serious” about it, some even link to the original article on PubMed or in the journal for bonus points. This isn’t meant as a criticism of popular science writing – on the contrary I think it’s wonderful when big discoveries get some popular acclaim. The point is that presumably the model is effective since everyone uses it, begging the question of what scientists could learn from reporters to more effectively educate the general public. Is it as simple as simply integrating some compelling stories with the results?
First of all, it’s important to add some nuance to the idea of communicating research. Might the public communication of research be more effective if one tweaked its form? Emphatically yes. Should scientists start including sob stories in their peer-reviewed articles? No way! Stories can have their uses since people aren’t purely rational beings, and the emotional appeal might be necessary to spark a change in behavior. Yet at the same time, anecdotal evidence is the bane of the public scientific debate, and welcoming stories uncritically might legitimize a slew of he-said-she-said unverifiable nonsense.
We see it all the time in outrageous claims like vaccines causing autism, or miracle cures from homeopathy. A friend of a friend said she had a perfectly normal baby boy until he got his shots. Then a few months later, he started having issues and was diagnosed with autism – I’m never letting my kids take that risk! These sorts of hyperemotional responses lead us to irrational actions, contrary to any scientific evidence. To tip the balance, the SciAm post argues that the story of the kid who died from measles since his parents feared the vaccine needs to be proclaimed more loudly. But is it the scientist’s role to gather stories in addition to data before addressing the public?
Finding a balance – research, evidence and advocacy
As a scientist, you have to walk a fine line. Science and advocacy are linked – or at least should be, assuming you want a factual debate, rather than a purely emotional or ideological one – but they’re not identical. When scientists go out in the media with expert advice, they’re supposed to bring the facts to the table, but for many, a story illustrating the point might be equally, if not more effective.
What role does that leave for the scientist? Showing up with only data, and hoping someone else can add the necessary emotion seems like a gamble at best… The staunchest opponents to putting a human face on research results might want to consider whether it truly is the dichotomy presented thus far. Is there an inherent contradiction to presenting a story alongside factual evidence, or can scientists do both without crossing the border to advocacy? Is advocacy an inherent part of a scientist’s mandate, or overstepping one’s boundaries? What do you think?
Are there issues to a scientist presenting stories to help visualize research results, or is this a false dichotomy? To what extent should scientists use stories when communicating with the public about their research? Share your opinion in the comments!
* The message, in a nutshell, being that inactivity is a significant health risk, and even shorter bouts of exercise – especially if done right – can be very effective in preventing lifestyle-related disease.
Written by Hanna Sofie Ellingsen at CERG.