Dear Research Advocate:
The cover story of this month’s National Geographic describes the recent wave of science doubt as a “pop culture meme,” featuring in-the-news examples like climate change and vaccines, and discussion of tough challenges like replicability of research, scientific literacy (of note: increased science literacy has been shown to lead to increased polarization of opinion about science), and what is meant, anyway, by effective “science communication”? The article doesn’t mention what I often call the “invisibility” problem (see, for example, data showing low percentages of Americans who can name a living scientist), but that topic was addressed directly and indirectly in several sessions at last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Data from a Pew Research poll of AAAS members show that a majority of scientists now believe that it is important to engage with the public, with a high percentage saying they do so regularly. That is welcome news. Another AAAS session brought out the importance of the quality of that engagement, exploring connecting with non-scientists in ways that is positive for both scientist and non-scientist. And, Professor Susan Fiske of Princeton spoke to an overflow crowd in her featured session about work showing that all of us – people in general – for better or worse, and with consequences to match – make quick judgments about others’ intent and their degree of competency. (Perception of competency + perception of good intent = trust.) Fiske noted that politicians are almost never trusted, although they are sometimes viewed as competent. Scientists are mostly considered competent, but they are also considered to be cold, a judgment that can throw their intentions into question. Fiske said that it is possible to change perceptions about scientists if they convey warmth and motivation to cooperate, showing ‘worthy intent.’ (If you have followed Research!America’s work in communicating to the non-science trained public, you know that we advocate saying and conveying, “I work for you.” That advice fits right in here.) Continue reading →