At the end of each day of the colloquium, two of the colloquium’s organizers—Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University—reflected on the themes that emerged from the day’s presentations and discussions. A major theme, said Scheufele, is the need for broader and more inclusive discussions about science and science communication. The application and communication of scientific results are informed by considerations that are not necessarily scientific in nature, including ethical, moral, and societal considerations. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and other organizations have done good work in convening such discussions and in studying how they should be conducted. But more research needs to be done on public discussions like consensus conferences or town halls, Scheufele said. These events tend to be attended by people who are very opposed or very supportive of a technology, whereas other communities that should be heard are often not represented.
Scheufele also pointed out that the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication have been intended to galvanize a new field and a new way of thinking. The new era of science that is emerging “requires us to think differently about communication,” he said. Technologies are emerging at a rapid pace and are making fast transitions from research to application. More information is available to people more quickly than ever before. People have more ability to have exchanges with others through social media. At the same time, this increased access to information has created problems, such as getting just one side of the story,
or, as Scheufele noted, “we can’t even make it through this conference without a whole bunch of spam coming in on the colloquium hashtag” (#SacklerSciComm).
Fischhoff cited three themes emerging from the colloquium: one behavioral, one organizational, and one societal.
The behavioral theme is that when phenomena are complex, stories can pull diverse facts together into something that people can understand. Stories are useful if they evoke mental models, folk theories, and worldviews in ways that make sense to people, giving them “a warranted feeling of self-efficacy,” said Fischhoff. “They can [then] generate appropriate conclusions from their own first principles.” Science communicators can increase their effectiveness through the use of stories, but we also need “a sustained dialogue with the people we’re trying to talk to, so that these are stories and issues relevant to their concerns.”
The organizational theme is that academic institutions need to change their reward systems to support people who want to take a scientific approach to science communication. People need to be able to access and decode the scientific literature on science communication. They need help in evaluating their own work to determine when their intuitions about science communication might be wrong, and “we need venues for the kinds of sustained interpersonal ties, shared experiences, trust, and empathy that enable us to speak with legitimacy to our audiences.”
Finally, on the societal level, it is important to provide information and establish relationships before issues polarize and spin out of control. That way, science gets a fair hearing and there is less need to blame the audience, political hysteria, or the innumeracy of the public. Scientists need help in understanding the complicated social processes through which such interactions take place, said Fischhoff.
We need to understand when it is more important for people to express group solidarity than to endorse a fact that is absolutely at the center of our scientific life. We need to know the situations in which the facts are collateral damage to other processes. And we need to understand those situations where we’re part of the problem by mixing in our preferred solutions to the problems that we’re describing.
Finally, Emmy Award–winning journalist Frank Sesno, who moderated the first day of the colloquium, elaborated on Fischhoff’s point about the power of stories.
I apologize for being so simplistic about it, but it works. A great story is compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome. That’s what science is. It’s compelling characters—people in the labs, people in the field, people all over—overcoming obstacles—of the unknown, of every economic and financial sort—to achieve a worthy outcome—to gain knowledge and to move humanity forward. If we can’t tell stories from science, we can’t tell stories from anyplace. So there’s enormous potential, up against all these challenges that we’ve talked about here today.
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