Effectively communicating scientific information

“A lot of people are turned off by the phrase “flat earth” … but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know… grow up.”

With the rise of social media outlets, it is simple for users to display their opinions and beliefs for the whole world to consume, including scientific topics. The aforementioned quote, which pertains to “flat earthers,” appears to fly in the face of many scientific principles, including gravity. This quote, by rapper BoB, was met with both support and opposition, most notably astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The exchanges between these two were composed primarily of personal attacks, and although both sides did provide “evidence” to their arguments, in the end, nothing was accomplished.

When prominent figures spread misinformation about scientific principles, it can often evoke visceral reactions. It is easy enough to dismiss these claims, but those who take it upon themselves to combat this information often go about it in an ineffective way, as evidenced by the prolific vitriol online. This belies a serious problem for the scientific community: How do we convey to the general public what we know?

One solution could be to simply state why an idea is wrong. However, this method I find to be fairly ineffective, and if the listener has no scientific training, then those statements are essentially meaningless. No real connection is created to give that “Eureka!” moment; rote memorization of facts is the least convincing if the person doesn’t believe those facts in the first place.

A study published in PNAS, Countering antivaccination attitudes, took a slightly different approach to another fairly widespread debate, the dangers of vaccinating children. The authors postulate that, “Since attempts to influence attitudes are often thwarted by people’s tendency to discount or ignore evidence contrary to their existing attitudes [a phenomenon known as confirmation bias]…These considerations led us to consider an alternative approach to using scientific information to change attitudes…This approach is analogous to that taken by researchers who have effectively corrected participants’ erroneous beliefs not by refuting incorrect elements of these beliefs, but rather by replacing those elements with new information.” The authors found that providing participants (on Mechanical Turk) with information on the dangers of not vaccinating was more effective than attempting to dispel beliefs that vaccinations in children led to the development of autism. The paper notes that when a person’s beliefs are directly attacked, they often react more negatively and are far less likely to be convinced. In this case, rather than refute the claim, providing an alternative example ensures that the other side is not ridiculed while still putting forth a valid argument.

However, I would argue that even this is insufficient for conveying the beliefs of the scientific community. As studies have shown, people often ignore facts that don’t agree with their opinion, and so presenting facts may not be enough. If we only continue to present data that we have gathered and do not address other competing ideologies, they will likely still fester in their echo chambers, and thus no progress is made. In the end, a combination of both providing information leading to the answer in line with the consensus of the scientific community, while refuting the other claims through evidence, might be perhaps even more effective. However, the method for refuting alternative hypotheses (where the evidence is heavily stacked against it) is difficult. One concept is the refutation text, which provides the misconception and explicit evidence to show why this conception is wrong and updates the reader to the currently held hypothesis. One study demonstrated that refutation texts are effective at correcting strongly held beliefs but was ineffective for less strongly held beliefs. Additionally, the test sample was well educated 8th grade Dutch students, so how this method performs on a more general public likely requires more investigation. Refutation texts borrows from a concept in developmental psychology called the Zone of Proximal Development, a model in education where the learner is aided in completing an otherwise impossible task through assistance from an educator. In this regard, the refutation text helps the reader understand the scientific principle and leads them to the appropriate conclusion without potentially confronting the reader on their misconception, leading to a more positive response.

Without sounding too clichéd, science requires the support of an educated public to continue furthering our interests. It falls to the scientific community to ensure that the public is appropriately literate on scientific topics, meaning that we must have knowledge ourselves of effective ways to get them to grasp our ideas. Although there is a significant amount of inquiries into scientific outreach, and it is appropriately looking for non-confrontational ways to present our knowledge, we must continue to stay connected with the community if we hope to keep science in the public’s interest.