What Scientists Need to Know About Policymakers to Affect Communication Outcomes

Thursday, February 11, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
The world has changed. Until the Internet made massive amounts of information storage and retrieval widely available, people who wanted to access scientific information had a limited number of ways to proceed. Children could learn about science in schools and adults could visit bookstores (which tended to be small) or local libraries, most of which had very limited collections of print-based scientific publications. They could read the few widely available science-oriented magazines or attend to the few radio/television programs that contained small amounts of information about science. Some could attend colleges or universities where they received tutelage from faculty who, while expert in their subject area, relied heavily on dated anecdotes when forming beliefs about the most effective ways to convey scientific information to others.

In the pre-Internet era, science communicators were a few in number and many were in a monopolistic or near-monopolistic position. Absent competition from other sources of information on the topics of their expertise, many scientists came to believe that those who read our books or attended our lectures were obligated to sit through badly organized and delivered presentations. We came to believe that others were obligated to learn about abstractions that they could never use as the price to be paid for obtaining from us small amounts of knowledge that they might be able to use. In the absence of communicative competition, our audiences had little or no recourse when offered ineffective information. At the same time, we had no incentive to change our communicative training and expectational norms.

The world has changed. Now there are multiple sources of information on many of the topics for which science and scientists wish to be influential. Moreover, it is safe to assume that we are closer to the beginning of this information revolution than we are to the end. As a result, for science to remain relevant and influential in the public sphere, science communicators must become more skilled at conveying critical information in ways that will draw prospective learners's attention. 

This presentation is about how scientists can and should adapt to changing communicative dynamics -- particularly in politicized environments. Scientists from many disciplines study perception and learning. They can help us understand what types of information will attract others attention and foster learning. Science can also help scientists understand how their actions sometimes impede their credibility and undermine their ability to convey information of real value to others. In this paper, we integrate lessons from a number of distinct scientific agendas to show how science communicators can convey more information of more value to more people. We pay particular attention to the kinds of skill and knowledge that can help scientists communicate more effectively with legislators and their staffs.