How to Communicate Science Effectively

Rick Borchelt has an interesting Comment in Geotimes concerning this issue:

Culver, a former newspaper science reporter and now editor at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, likens scientists’ current fascination with influencing science policy or funding — by sending out reams of press releases and glossy brochures — to the desire to have duck for dinner. We might think that there could be a couple of ducks in the pond up on the hill in back of the cabin, and we might want one of those ducks for dinner.

To get the duck, we’d fill a gallon bucket with steel shot. Then we’d sneak up the hill, yell “Boo!” and throw the shot up in the air, hoping that (1) there were ducks in the pond in the first place, (2) that they fly up in a panic, (3) that they collide with our shot with sufficient force to knock them down, and (4) that we didn’t hit blue jays and robins instead of ducks.

He points out that if saturation coverage were really effective political, and by extension scientific, literacy would be much higher.

Miller found that the pool of people who actually get in the game on most science and technology policy issues is very small — usually a few hundred. The entire universe of decision-makers and policy leaders for all of these kinds of issues numbers only about 8,000 people.

Miller also found that these people consume information voraciously. They read newspapers, books and magazines. They browse Web sites; most of them are very Internet-savvy and have computers they use at both work and home. Given this information, you’d think that throwing a lot of information about science into mass media would have an impact.

What emerges from this research is that decision-makers and policy leaders are not passive consumers of information. They don’t read just anything that is dumped in front of them. They actively seek information about issues where they think they need to know more. And they are very particular about where that information comes from. They give very high marks on credibility to scientific journals, national laboratory reports and scientific organizations. But they rate commercial television news dead last and most print mass media rather poorly as well.

What we need to do, he argues is target those 8,000 directly through the web, scientific literature and personal interactions and not “…surrender our messages and our hopes for disseminating them to reporters, editors and news anchors whose capacity to accurately transmit the message in the first place requires a great leap of faith.”

It goes with out saying that these reporters, news anchors and editors are also the ones instituting a fake sense of balance characterized by “he said, she said” reporting. It is important, considering the war on science currently being waged by the Bush administration, climate contrarians and intelligent design advocates, that we use every tool that we can to reach that small group of decision makers and policy leaders. Since the turn to journals, lab reports and science organizations we need to make those three groups more focused on our message.

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