Re-Cap on Talk at NAS: Communicating About Evolution
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Roughly 100 audience members turned out to Monday's talk at the National Academies on "Communicating about Evolution" co-sponsored by the NIH and part of their spring lecture series on Evolution and Medicine. Online video of the talk and slides will be available soon but below I have pasted the take home conclusions that I offered, principles and rules of thumb that should guide public engagement not just on evolution but on any science-related policy topic.
1. Science literacy has very little to do with public support, trust, perceptions, or deference to science.
2. Scientific organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, authority, and hold great communication capital but need to use it wisely and effectively.
3. Specifically, organizations and scientists need to provide messages that emphasize shared common values and personal relevance rather than make it easy for people to re-interpret science in terms of false conflict or uncertainty.
4. When values not communicated, a consequence is that scientific evidence is turned into just another political resource for competing interest groups.
These principles follow from a sizable body of research in the field of science communication. Last year, in an interview with Big Think (below), I talked about an early study in the field that started the wheels in motion for examining the complex range of influences that shape public perceptions of science. For more, see this review article on the past 25 years of research in the field and this CBC radio interview with sociologist Brian Wynne. More on these themes is coming out in print soon.
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