Science communication professionals and audiences recently got together to explore ideas for good science communication at the Opinion Festival in Paide, Estonia.
Controversial topics, such as vaccinations and climate change, always trigger calls for better communication of scientific knowledge to the general audience. However, what exactly is meant by ‘better’? Good communication may mean one thing for scientists and another thing for journalists, while the audience understands it altogether differently.
As part of the QUEST activities investigating the quality of science communication, the Tallinn University team summoned a topical discussion at the Estonian Opinion Festival – an annual open-air event featuring engaging discussions on various topics.
We brought together different stakeholders – a journalist, a scientist, a medical practitioner and the audience – to find overlapping visions of good science communication. The discussion was moderated by the QUEST team member Arko Olesk from Tallinn University.
Isn’t this a nice setting to discuss quality of science communication? Our @TallinnUni @quest_eu team organized this session at this year’s @Arvamusfestival (Estonian Opinion Festival). #scicomm #engagement /1 pic.twitter.com/5LeBfNwQif— Arko Olesk (@ArkoOlesk) August 10, 2019
Bad science communication can kill
As often happens, the discussion about how to understand ’quality’ started with examples of bad science communication. We have all encountered pseudo-scientific articles stating preposterous claims like ‘Sleeping naked helps to lose weight’.
Medical practitioner Karmen Joller suggested that while many web articles take scientific facts as their basis, the conclusions they draw enter the realm of fantasy. On other occasions, misinformation is the result of poor critical reading of scientific articles, or ignoring the skewed methodology or limited data of the original study. She finds that, although many articles, such as the one about naked sleeping, can be regarded as light amusement, the stories on the other end of the ’bad’ spectrum, such as those arguing against vaccines can indeed cause death.
Greete Palmiste, journalist from the investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress, threw some light on how these articles are possibly born. While print journalists consider their source material carefully, web editors need to meet a certain quota of ‘units’, or articles, within one day. Under this time pressure, it is highly likely that articles are copied or translated from elsewhere, such as Daily Mail, without even looking at the original data.
The audience does not see any excuses for the sloppy reporting and expects there to always be diligent science editors so that science reporting does not lose its credibility. As one participant wittily illustrated, there is a general sense of loss of credibility towards the media:
‘I wish we went back to the good old times. When someone asked, ‘What’s your evidence?’ you could respond, ‘I read it from the newspaper.’
Accessible and understandable
The participants agreed that good communication is easily understood, and pointed out some of their own techniques that help them convey a clear message to the audience.
Joller was mostly concerned with the anti-vaccination sentiment. She finds that when searching about vaccinations online, one is more likely to encounter misleading secondary sources whose appeal lies in simple language and vivid illustrations. Compared to this, official information is dull, long-winded and difficult to read. Her approach is to simplify complicated messages, never offering more than one or two arguments at a time, and using catchy beginnings in her articles and social media posts.
Neuroscientist Jaan Aru agreed with Joller and said he tries to step out of the role of a scientist when addressing the general audience. This may raise some questions among fellow researchers, as Aru removes some uncertainty from his articles and makes his statements rather black-and-white. He uses Twitter as another tool to spread his messages to the public, and has had his stories picked up by popular science magazines thanks to his social media presence.
Palmiste, as a journalist, said she appreciates scientists like Aru and Joller, who make an effort to be heard on different platforms. However, she still sees that the majority of scientists do not approach journalists. Journalists are your friends, she emphasizes to those who are afraid of possible negative publicity.
The audience of the discussion supported the idea of sending clear messages. However, they also asked to not be underestimated either. Sensational headlines and moralizing content are frowned upon, and the audience seems to ask for more informative reporting. They would like to see arguments both for and against an issue from different sides, as well as clear references to sources.