This week I had the privilege to give a talk at a local science/astronomy society not too far from where I live and work. It was a delight – I met some lovely new people, there was a bit of debate at the end and many fascinating and thought-provoking questions. Altogether, a thoroughly wonderful experience and the kind of thing I really value. Getting out of the old ivory tower can be an eye-opener – meeting new people can make you think about your research in a fresh way, and that’s fantastic.
However, a difficulty with communicating science more widely is that the type of people who get involved with public science events often seem to belong to one of three groups: young people who are forced to by their school/university, people of any age who do something related to this as their job anyway, and retired people who have the time and perhaps have rediscovered an old interest they’d always wanted to cultivate. Of course, all these groups offer wonderful opportunities, and the above is a sweeping generalisation with many exceptions. However, the truth of the matter is there there are oodles of people in society who we, as scientists, ecologists, and so on, are not really reaching…ever, in any meaningful way. Presumably most of us would like to communicate well with a diversity of people, because they all have the ability to influence science and environmental policy, they can all consider how their own lifestyles may or may not benefit climate change, biodiversity, etc. And we’d probably all like the scientists of the future to be as diverse as possible in their backgrounds and perspectives.
Studies are finding again and again that people’s relationship with science is very variable and seems to suggest that at the moment we often end up preaching to the choir, if you like – talking to people who were already interested and open to engagement – rather than genuinely seeking out people who weren’t interested in science before and find a way to ignite a spark of fascination in them. Indeed, the link above divides people into four groups, from the ultra-engaged “Fan Boys and Fan Girls” through to the 20% of people who are “Concerned and Disengaged” with respect to science and technology.
“One of the other key findings of the CSIRO study was that the Fan Boys and Fan Girls are further away from the average point of community values than any other segment of the population. This means that Fan Boys or Girls probably have the least idea of what might appeal to the other segments. They know what turns them on, but they are probably only guessing what will work for the other segments.”
So what do we need to be doing better? This wonderful pamphlet from ecoAmerica caught my eye recently – although aimed at US audiences, people are people, and it does highlight a few key truths. As scientists, we may sometimes assume that something should be inherently believable because we’re familiar with the research and the peer review process and we know it to be true, and therefore surely everyone should just see the truth and agree? But it’s not that simple…
Firstly, it reminded us that “the public” are not an amorphous mass: whether you’re talking to (in the USA) mostly Republicans or Democrats, people who identify with a religion or not, married or single people, different educational backgrounds – all these things are pretty important not just with respect to the jargon you choose to leave in or take out, or the topic areas you choose to cover, but also in terms of what values will matter to different people. As an example in ecoAmerica’s report, a lot of environmental messages are pitched by and for liberals as a “care versus harm” type message, which resonates with the message creators, but with more conservative audiences, rephrasing the arguments as a question of “sanctity versus degradation” apparently holds more weight because many of these people have strong moral values to do with protecting what is sacred from defilement. They list a whole load of such continuums that may resonate more or less strongly with different groups – liberty versus oppression, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, etc.
This led to a discussion of the theory of virtues – i.e. things that people in a given group consider to be important. So while one person may consider education, critical analysis and freedom of choice to be highly important traits, another may place a higher value on faith, loyalty and deference to authority. The first person is never really going to engage constructively with the second by building an argument about sustainable farming, for example, on the basis of scientific datasets and published papers, but may perhaps see more success with a case based on respect for the earth and community, interconnectedness of ecosystems such that one person’s actions affect another’s or reference to a respected authority figure endorsing a strategy.
The thing that struck me most is that part of connecting with your audience is creating a sense that you and they are part of a single group, on the same side. Everyone, in the end, wants to do things that they regard as fundamentally decent according to the values of the group in which they feel they fit. So for climate change behaviours, you create a group in which you and the audience all feel a sense of belonging, and then those behaviours feel a lot more appealing than if you’re simply a distant, “other” scientist lecturing them about what they need to do. This means looking for common ground with your audience, especially in cases where at first impressions you may not seem like part of the group (e.g. your accent, age, gender, cultural background or dress style is different).
I think some of these ideas of how to connect with people are really good to keep in mind not just when making a speech to a Permanent Secretary, but in a whole variety of areas of science communication – from schools outreach, lectures, talks to the local beekeeping club, meetings with farmers, conference presentations, etc.
Most importantly, perhaps we need to just make fewer assumptions about the people we’re talking to and try and see the arguments from their perspective?