At the WPost, More Focus on the Miserly Public

As I have written in various articles, when it comes to science debates, the public is far more likely to be miserly in reaching a judgment than fully informed. Most citizens are cognitive misers relying heavily on information short cuts and heuristics to make up their minds about a science controversy, often in the absence of knowledge.

As a result, in order to effectively engage the public, scientists and their organizations need to adapt their communication efforts to the realities of human nature and the media system. This means recasting, or "framing," their communication efforts in a way that remain consistent with the science, but that connects a complex science issue to something that the intended audience already understands or values. (For more, see this recently completed book chapter, The Scientist cover article, the essay at Science, and this journal study.)

I didn't invent these principles, I adapted them from more than sixty years of research in political communication and public opinion, applying them to science debates. In this context, when it comes to understanding what makes for effective communication strategy, there is nothing essentially unique about science from election campaigns or other political skirmishes.

A few weeks back, the Washington Post spotlighted this previous research in a lengthy feature. Today the newspaper revisits the topic in a shorter article titled "Five Myths About Those Civic Minded, Deeply Informed Voters."

Of note to science enthusiasts is the myth: "If you just give Americans the facts, they'll be able to draw the right conclusions." Also probably of interest to Science Blog readers is the finding that Daily Show viewers are no likely to be more informed than regular viewers of Fox News' OReilly Factor.

2. Bill O'Reilly's viewers are dumber than Jon Stewart's.

Liberals wish. Democrats like to think that voters who sympathize with their views are smarter than those who vote Republican. But a 2007 Pew survey found that the knowledge level of viewers of the right-wing, blustery "The O'Reilly Factor" and the left-wing, snarky "The Daily Show" is comparable, with about 54 percent of the shows' politicized viewers scoring in the "high knowledge" category.

So what about conservative talk-radio titan Rush Limbaugh's audience? Surely the ditto-heads are dumb, right? Actually, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Rush's listeners are better educated and "more knowledgeable about politics and social issues" than the average voter.

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