Science Is Losing the Information War. Scientists Can Help.
Why scientific communication needs to target the passive content consumer, and how to reach them.
Most scientists value communication with the public and engage in it regularly. Despite this, our scientific messaging fails to reach enormous swaths of the American population, and the consequences for society may be dire.
The lion’s share of scientific content created for the layperson is geared toward a very specific audience. Highly informative, polished talks are recorded and posted on an institution’s website — perfectly targeted to the highly curious, scientifically-minded person with an hour to spare for intellectual enrichment.
Comprehensive guidelines to support public health causes are displayed on government-sponsored websites — ideal for the concerned citizen who proactively educates themselves in order to be maximally socially responsible.
While rich in information and flush with credibility, these informational resources cater mainly to those who are already interested in the topic, and largely miss another, bigger population: those holding a neutral or antagonistic view of science, who encounter content related to scientific issues merely by happenstance.
It is critical that scientists and science journalists alter our tactics, striving not only to reach active pursuers of scientific information, but also to engage passive consumers of such content.
Engaging this “passive consumer” group is of tremendous importance. Perhaps surprisingly, they make up a majority of the American public: 70% of individuals report that they do not actively seek out science news or information.
By nature of being receptive rather than active in their consumption of scientific content, this majority group holds the potential to be swayed by whatever information they come across.
Thus the content and quality of available information can have a serious impact on public opinion on scientific topics, as illustrated by a recent study focused on attitudes toward vaccines published in Nature.
By analyzing Facebook group dynamics, the authors find that groups with a neutral stance on vaccines (representing the “undecided” individuals) are more highly connected to groups promoting anti-vaccination views than pro-vaccination positions. The alarming forecast is that a majority of Americans will oppose vaccines in just a decade.
To learn how to successfully fight this battle on behalf of science, we might take cues from the side that’s currently winning.
Misinformation and disinformation spreads well by design: its messages are attention-grabbing, easily absorbable, and are often tailored to groups with particular interests, such as parents of young children. The aforementioned study suggests that these powerful qualities are driving the upward trend of anti-vaccination views.
While scientific messaging is vanilla, opposing agendas produce content of many flavors and thus are more easily disseminated. If we want to increase engagement with pro-science content, we should adopt some of the presentation tactics of mis- and disinformation while preserving the accuracy of our statements.
The ideal path forward consists of a collaboration between scientists, communications experts (preferably specializing in science), and digital content creators.* Together, they can choose scientific topics of interest, identify relevant target groups, and design content production plans geared toward them.
Each specialist should utilize their expertise: the scientists can select informational content and ensure its accuracy, communications experts should refine the messaging and tailor it to particular groups, and digital content creators can be responsible for making the final product visually appealing and interesting.
If these individuals belong to a scientific institution, it may help to attain the organization’s sponsorship of these activities in order to add an extra stamp of credibility to their content.
But this work cannot happen without scientists as the primary drivers. They will be most aware of where public misunderstanding of a scientific topic exists, and strongly motivated to correct it.
They are highly knowledgeable, and must serve the critical role of keeping messaging accurate and honest, being careful not to overstate scientific claims. And very importantly, they are trusted — over 65% of the American public holds a positive view of medical scientists, and confidence in these professionals is growing annually.
Asking scientists to spend their precious free time on more science-related work is not trivial, but the cause is pressing. If any extra motivation is needed, let us return to the vaccine issue, which presents a potential impending crisis in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent poll, 20% of Americans said they would refuse a vaccine for the novel coronavirus once offered. An additional one in three were uncertain about whether they would accept a vaccine. If a majority of the undecided swing to the side of vaccine rejection, we are at serious danger of failing to reach herd immunity, for which it is estimated that 70% of the population would need to become immune to the virus.
Of course, we should not focus only on the most immediate threats to societal well-being, as there are many scientific topics of which a better public understanding would be beneficial. This means that scientists across disciplines and subfields can, and should, add their voices to this work.
To my scientist readers: I hope you’ll join me in these efforts to spread knowledge to a broader audience. Make a simple video explaining a commonly misunderstood concept.
Collaborate with colleagues to produce an eye-catching infographic that quickly clarifies an important point. Seek your institution’s support in advertising easily digestible scientific content. If you can manage it, make this a coordinated effort — the more pro-science information we disseminate, the more we can engage the passive consumer and drown out disinformation.
After all, we got into this field because we love science and want the world to see its benefits — so let’s make sure everyone gets the chance to understand it, too.
*The especially digital communications-savvy scientist could take on all three of these roles, if time permits.