Dietram A. Scheufele, professor and chair of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-principal investigator of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University, discussed the science of communicating with the public. He stressed that communications also may be an art, but it primarily is a science.

His themes were how audiences make sense of emerging technologies and how experience gained from communicating about past technologies can be applied to communicating about the space program. Showing data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, he pointed out that science has an audience, but it is not a large audience, and space is only a small part of that (Figure 14).

The public does not have a good understanding of science, Scheufele continued, showing data from the National Science Board that only 51 percent know how long it takes for Earth to go around the Sun, 33 percent understand the logic of an experiment, and 22 percent understand the concept of a scientific study (Figure 15).

It is a fact that scientists need to recognize. How, then, does the public make sense of science and technology? Science is just one of many decisions that people need to make every day, and they do it using “cognitive shortcuts”—”information shortcuts” or “heuristics”—where people make judgments based on information they already have.

Scheufele used the example of “Frankenfood,” a campaign by the environmental group Greenpeace against genetically engineered food in which the group altered the appearance of the cereal cartoon character “Tony the Tiger” on the cover of a box of Frosted Flakes to make it appear menacing and called it “Tony the Frankentiger, Genetically Frosted Flakes.” He said the campaign did not talk about facts at all, but was a powerful method for telling the public how to think.

How a topic is framed and what terminology is used therefore is critical in communicating. “Frames and narratives are powerful heuristics.” Scheufele gave an example of how terminology changed in the early days of the recent economic crisis. For about 2 days the story was “bank bailouts,” but it quickly changed to “rescues” because, while people do not want to bail out a bank, they do want to rescue the economy.

Scientists need to be proactive in communications because once labels are established, it is difficult to change them, he cautioned. For example, presidential science adviser John Holdren tried to change the terminology from “climate change” to “climate disruption” and was harshly criticized by Fox News.

Scheufele emphasized the need to connect with the public on their own “turf,” using as an example putting a banner along the sidelines of a soccer game saying “science for a better life.” Public values are important in understanding many of the emerging technologies and cause people to look at information differently. He cautioned against a widening “elite gap” where people with college educations increasingly are better educated about nanotechnology, for example, than high school graduates, showing data that as the information about nanotechnology became more complex between 2004 and 2007, the gap widened. He thinks the Internet and social media are emerging as effective tools for closing such gaps.

In closing, Scheufele listed five ways to ensure a communications failure:

• Be reactive instead of proactive, i.e., only start going public after a crisis/event occurs

• Address only issues and ignore values, emotions, etc., that people bring to the table

• Assume that science will ultimately prevail

• Assume that new and social media do not matter as much as traditional media

• Assume that communication is an art rather than a science

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement