Since I’ve been focusing a bit recently on science communication I thought I would briefly discuss a paper by Simon Donner called Publish or perish: finding the balance in science communication. The reason for my title is that he suggests we could learn from Frank Luntz who said:
There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.
However, Simon’s paper makes a subtler argument that is very interesting, and really worth considering. We work in environments where we’re encouraged to promote our research publicly. This is for the benefit of the researchers, but also for the benefit of their institutions, and sometimes the funding agencies. The problem is that this can lead to research being over-hyped and being presented as having somehow challenged some fundamental aspect of our scientific understanding, when it really does no such thing.
It’s important to promote one’s research publicly, but also important to present it in an appropriate context. Public understanding of science is going to be poorly served if the public is continually presented with suggestions that some piece of research has overturned a paradigm, when it really has not. This could lead the public to conclude that there is much less agreement about the science than is actually the case. As the article says,
[i]f the goal is to advance public science literacy and public support for science, we need to always place our findings in context and be cautious of the promotional aspect of the media release culture.
In my view this is an important issue and this basic suggestion is – in my opinion – well worth considering; scientists really do need to communicate in a responsible manner that both highlights the interesting aspects of their own research, but also does so in a way that stresses how this fits within the broader scientific picture.
A great deal of research is aimed at clarifying the details, rather than over-throwing a consensus, and it’s important for the public to understand this, both in terms of understanding how science typically works, but also in terms of understanding the strength of our overall scientific understanding.