American Perceptions of Scientists' Public Communication Goals

Sunday, February 14, 2016
John Kotcher, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Despite recent efforts within the scientific community to train and mobilize more scientists for public engagement, relatively little is known about public beliefs about the reasons scientists engage in public communication. Research on social attribution has found that audiences make spontaneous inferences about the intentions of communicators and that these inferences are likely to play a role in the formation of judgments about the communicator’s credibility. In this study, we present data from a nationally representative survey of Americans (n=1000) that asked participants to list up to five reasons that scientists engage in public communication using an open-ended question format. We conducted a quantitative content analysis of these responses to characterize the breadth of different types of communication goals that Americans spontaneously attribute to scientists (e.g. to educate/inform, to get more funding, to advance an agenda) as well as the prevalence of each perceived goal within the population. For each reason listed by a respondent, we also asked them to indicate whether they think it is a “good thing” or “bad thing” (on a 7-point scale) that scientists choose to communicate with the public for that reason in order to examine individual differences in attitudes towards each type of communication goal. Finally, we present subgroup analysis to examine whether and how political liberals, moderates, and conservatives differ in terms of which communication goals are most frequently attributed to scientists and how they evaluate each goal. Our findings represent one of the most systematic attempts to identify and characterize the content of Americans’ stereotypes about the communication goals of scientists. These beliefs are important because individuals likely rely upon these stereotypical schemas to form expectations about how scientists should and/or are likely to behave in their public engagement efforts.  These expectations, in turn, have implications for how individuals are likely to attend to and process information from scientists and scientific organizations. Our results also raise the question of how Americans develop their beliefs about the communication goals of scientists. Future research should examine the relative influence of demographic factors, educational background, and media use on these perceptions.