A recent study by Pew Research Center found that there are wide gaps in understanding between the public and scientists on issues such as GMO foods, climate change and childhood vaccine requirements. The findings are instructive for communicators who rely heavily on science and technology in promoting products or addressing issues. No matter how strongly TS&D believes the science is sound, that probably isn’t enough to persuade the public.
Pew surveyed 2,200 U.S. citizens and a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Of the issues explored in the Pew study, the widest margin of disagreement was in regard to the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. Nearly 90 percent of scientists believe GMO foods are safe to eat, but only 37 percent of consumers believe that to be true.
Given there is more than two decades of science to consider, the reason for the divide is partially explained by the one thing both groups agree on – the U.S. is lagging when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Just 16 percent of AAAS scientists and 29 percent of the general public ranked U.S. K-12 STEM education as above average or the best in the world.
While this lack of emphasis certainly burdens companies looking for a strong employee pool to draw from, it also challenges communicators by creating a group of consumers who lack a high level of scientific literacy. What’s left is a market influenced largely by emotion and group-think rather than verified facts.
To Err is Human
In the case of GMO foods, consumers are largely passing judgment on an issue they know little about. In a survey of U.S. consumers conducted in 2013 by Rutgers University, more than half (54 percent) said they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and 25 percent said they have never heard of them. Although this “blank slate” may seem to be a great opportunity to educate, the truth is that this void is more easily filled by emotion and fear.
Take, for example, the current debate around childhood vaccinations. With measles cases on the rise, a spotlight has been shone on the risk-reward premise of childhood vaccines. Here again, scientists largely consider the issue settled while a good many citizens continue to scratch their heads. While the medical benefits of “herd immunity” strongly outweigh the limited risk vaccines pose to children, emotion and fear have some parents on the fence. That’s partially because many people have a bias toward trusting their gut rather than analyzing data when it comes to forming opinions. For many, correlation is as good as causation – more children are being diagnosed with autism after they are vaccinated, therefore vaccinations cause autism. Never mind that data correlations can result in humorous absurdities such as the divorce rate in Maine directly correlates to the per capita consumption of margarine in the U.S. Throw in a well-publicized but completely debunked study and a celebrity believer who confirms people’s fears, and you create an anti-vaccine movement.
Step Up to the STEM Challenge
While greater emphasis on STEM by American primary schools may help turn the tide on the public’s understanding of science, communicators can’t wait that long. Promoting product advantages and addressing environmental and social concerns often require the use of data and scientific comparisons. So what can be done to better connect with a public that is either scientifically challenged, distrustful or uninterested?
Have a Respectful Conversation
Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science, wrote an editorial that accompanied the Pew research results in which he promotes “respectful [two-way] communication, where scientists truly listen, as well as speak, to the public.” Too often the solution to overcoming a misunderstanding is to lecture audiences about facts and data in a way that comes across as condescending and adversarial.
It’s better to recognize that resistance to scientific explanations is rooted not in ignorance as much as in human fallibility. We all succumb to confirmation bias and are quick to link causes to casual observations. By treating audiences more respectfully and listening to their concerns, you can uncover the emotional roadblocks to understanding and begin to speak in a language that is more relevant to them.
Identify with Their Values
Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber found in their observations that “skilled arguers … are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” For the most part, we will choose security in our beliefs, and those of the group with which we identify, over facts. To bridge the gap requires understanding the values being protected – individualism, environmentalism, financial independence – and connecting your communications to that ideal. That’s how author and former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas came to be an advocate for GMO food. He began his anti-GMO crusade largely based on his concern for the environment and society, but now views GMOs as an environmentally sound solution to feeding the growing world population. His values didn’t change, but the context in which he viewed the science did.
Make Data Digestible
Using equivalencies and infographics to convey data visually in everyday terms can increase interest and understanding. Studies by educational researchers suggest that 83 percent of human learning occurs visually, so infographics offer an efficient and interesting way to deliver scientific instruction. Link this with equivalencies, such as “it takes 4 acres of forest to offset the annual greenhouse gas emissions of your passenger car,” and you start to build a narrative that is easy to understand and remember.
We can hope that the U.S. education system will better address scientific literacy and promote more critical thinking, but in the meantime we can’t ignore the important role communications play in helping to bridge the gap between science and emotions. The prospects of many products, technologies, companies and organizations will not be well served by people viewing science as fiction.