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Ambassadors for Science

Column

The Science of Science Communication

Matt Nisbet

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.2, March / April 2018


Last year my wife and I bought our first home, in a Massachusetts town north of Boston. When we moved to the town, we had no friends in the area or family members. If we were going to navigate the complexities of buying a home in an ultracompetitive and unfamiliar housing market, I knew that I was going to have to lean on a reliable source of advice. I needed to find what researchers who study social influence call an opinion-leader. As numerous studies have explored, opinion-leaders rarely hold formal positions of authority and instead prove influential by way of their greater attention to the news or a specialized topic, the knowledge they acquire, their strength of personality, and their experience in serving as a central go-between for shared information among their large network of friends and acquaintances (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

Luckily, soon after we moved to town, I met a key local opinion-leader in the form of our financial advisor. A native of the area with a gregarious personality, over several decades he had built up a diverse network of contacts. As it turns out, his advice on choosing a real estate agent and local bank to work with proved critical to our home buying process.

As familiar as this process of community networking might sound, until only very recently science communication–related initiatives have ignored opinion-leaders. Instead of defining communication as a networked process, science communication has traditionally been conceptualized as a one-way process of translation from experts directly to the public via lectures, media appearances, or popular books and articles. If there were an intermediary, science journalists were the go-betweens. This model of communication has always been flawed, but in today’s polarized political culture and fragmented media system, such traditional approaches are likely to have limited reach and influence.

First, only about one in five Americans today are active consumers of science news, seeking out and using science news several times a week. With many alternative media options to choose from via TV, online, or their mobile devices, it is easy for those without an interest in science to avoid almost any news about the subject. Some people may incidentally bump into posts about science shared via Facebook or other social media platforms. But our social media feeds are also increasingly tailored by way of algorithms to our preferences and interests, making such incidental exposure less likely. Given recent debates over “fake news” and the spread of false information, most Americans now also say they distrust science posts they see via social media (Nisbet 2018; Pew 2017). Second, all of us tend to interpret debates over issues such as evolution, climate change, genetically modified food, or vaccination by way of our social, religious, and political identities. Our identities serve as powerful filters of scientific evidence. We selectively interpret arguments we encounter in the news to be consistent with our sense of what others who share our identity believe, following closely cues from trusted political leaders and media commentators (Nisbet 2016).

The tendency for Americans to rely on their social identity to make sense of complex issues limits the ability of scientists and their organizations to influence broader segments of the public. Surveys show that the scientific community—in comparison to the U.S. public at large—tends to be disproportionately white, male, liberal, and nonreligious (Pew 2015). Like most Americans, scientists tend to live, work, and socialize within social circles that mirror their background, social identity, and religious beliefs. Scientists are therefore likely to have fewer friends and acquaintances who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are black or Latino, have a conservative ideological outlook, or are churchgoers, much less evangelical or born-again Christians. Scientists and their organizations must therefore collaborate with trusted opinion-leaders who can build bridges to groups that are difficult for scientists to reach and who can lead discussions at the community level of complex science topics in a way that is persuasive and personally relevant.

New and Old Approaches

In designing new initiatives that connect scientists with community-based opinion-leaders, one example to learn from is the Science & Engineering Ambassadors program. Sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, since 2012 the program has trained and supported close to forty scientists and engineers in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area. The goal of the program is to help local community members become more conversant with science-related topics, gain knowledge and skills in explaining science-related information to others, and improve their ability to assess the validity of others’ claims and conclusions. To achieve this goal, scientists and engineers involved in the program specifically target in their outreach opinion-leaders living in the Pittsburgh area who can serve as valuable community-based go-betweens in spreading knowledge and information. These opinion-leaders span a variety of fields and sectors and include teachers, business leaders, attorneys, policymakers, neighborhood leaders, students, and media professionals. Drawing on principles from past research, the program seeks to engage those who “participate and have reach within the local community, as well as those who have a platform for disseminating knowledge and fostering community relationships” (National Academies 2012).

A second leading example is the “Science Booster Clubs” coordinated by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) (n.d). In 2016 as part of a pilot program, NCSE recruited volunteers from communities across Iowa, training them in how to persuasively discuss with fellow Iowans topics related to climate science and evolution. These volunteers attended and presented at local public libraries, farmers markets, county fairs, and festivals, striking up thousands of conversations and engaging an estimated 54,000 people across the state during the first year of the pilot program. Key to the program’s success was a partnership with the University of Iowa, which lent faculty and graduate student expertise to identifying and training volunteers and to evaluating and tracking the program’s success. Since the launch of the Science Booster program in 2016, the initiative has now spread across multiple states.

As the role of the University of Iowa suggests, state universities should be central hubs for initiatives seeking to engage opinion-leaders and their communities. For decades, by way of their cooperative extension offices and staff, these universities have provided expert advice to state-wide professionals and stakeholders on farming practices, energy conservation, public health, fisheries, coastal resilience, forestry, land and water conservation, and other topics. This process involves not only consulting a state’s residents about specific concerns, needs, and specialized knowledge, but also recruiting opinion-leaders and early adopters of best practices to influence their peers. In all, the diverse networks maintained by university-based cooperative extension offices offer tailor-made opportunities for scientists and their partners to engage in dialogue across diverse segments of the public about complex issues ranging from climate change to gene editing to science education (Prokopy et al. n.d.).

For readers who may be seeking a systematic way to identify and work with opinion leaders across groups, survey measures informed by several studies have been developed to reliably and validly identify individuals who hold opinion-leader traits. Shortened versions of these measures can be included in surveys of members of organizations or distributed among email lists and social media followers. Scores on these questions can then quickly identify those individuals who have strong opinion-leader–like traits (see Nisbet and Kotcher 2009). More informally, as part of their professional lives and community interactions, readers can identify those individuals who appear to be key influencers and go-betweens and start to build a relationship with them.


References
  • National Academies. 2012. Science and En-­gineering Ambassador Program Launches in Pittsburgh. Washington, DC. Available online at http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=05312012.
  • National Center for Science Education. n.d. Science Booster Clubs. Available online at https://ncse.com/scienceboosterclubs.
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2016. The science literacy paradox: Why really smart people often have the most biased opinions. Skeptical Inquirer 40(5): 21–23.
  • ———. 2018. Divided expectations: Why we need a new dialogue about science, inequality, and society. Skeptical Inquirer 42(1): 18–19.
  • Nisbet, M.C., and J.E. Kotcher. 2009. A two step flow of influence? Opinion-leader campaigns on climate change. Science Communication 30(3): 328–354.
  • Pew Research Center. 2015. An Elaboration of AAAS’ Scientists Views. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • ———. 2017. Sciences New and Information. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • Prokopy, L., W. Bartels, G. Burniske, et al. n.d. Agricultural Extension and Climate Change Communication. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Available online at http://climatescience.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228620-e-429.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.