Since I’ve discussed research informing rather than influencing I thought I would briefly highlight a blog post I found about facts, risks, and emotions. It’s by Alex Freeman, who is the Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication.
It essentially argues that quite a lot of science communication is more aimed at persuading than informing
For example, are you interested in what people do or think after they read or hear the information you provide? If you want people to change their behaviour or attitudes — to do something differently after hearing your message — then I would argue that you are primarily trying to persuade.
This is something I’ve pondered on a number of occasions. I think that the goal of research, and the communication of research results, should really be aimed at informing, rather than persuading. In fact, as the article highlights, people have the right to be informed and not persuaded.
In my view, the distinction between communication aimed at persuading and communication aimed at informing is not always made clear when people discuss science communication. I often get the sense that much discussion of science communication assumes that persuading people is the goal, when – in many cases – it’s actually more about informing, than persuading.
Of course, I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with communication that’s aimed at persuading, rather than simply informing. I think there’s place for both. However, I do think that it’s important to make the motivation clear. Is the goal to influence people’s behaviour and/or attitudes, or is it primarily to provide information so that people can decide for themselves how to respond.
Even if the goal is to inform, rather than persuade, I think it is still important to make the motivations clear. Why is the information being communicated, why is it important, and what do you hope might happen once this information has been provided? I communicate about climate science because I think it is an important topic and because I think that anthropogenically-driven climate change has the potential to have a significant impact. I do think that we should be thinking of ways to respond to this, but my preference is for the response to be informed, rather than people being persuaded to accept something without really understanding why.
One other thing I’ll add is that a consequence of this is that we should be careful of regarding a potentially poor response to something (which would be a judgement, anyway) as a failure of science communication. If the goal is to inform, rather than persuade, then we have to accept that the respone to this information may not be what some might have hoped.
My own view is that we should recognise that many different people/groups can be involved in communicating about a topic, some of whom are aiming to inform, with others using that information in order to persuade. Those who do the former can’t really define how the information is used, and those who do the latter should be careful of assuming that all who communicate have the same goals. That’s my basic view, but I will acknowledge that reality is probably somewhat more complicated.
Facts, risks and emotions: Has journalism and science communication crossed a line? (post by Alex Freeman).
Scientists are not salespeople (post about scientists not really being people who aim to convince people to buy their research results).
Informing versus convincing (a follow up to the above post).
Research should inform not influence (a post about the significance of the pressure on researchers to have societal impact).