How Can Science Museums Adapt to Fundamental Challenges Raised by the Science of Science Communication?

Recent research on science communication challenges our assumptions that understandable communication of science will bring the public to the best decisions about crucial issues for the future. What does the research say? How does this challenge our beliefs about informal science education? A Saturday morning ASTC 2015 session led by Larry Bell from the Museum of Science, Boston, addressed these questions and provided an opportunity for attendees to ask further questions and discuss how they might adapt their science communication strategies.

Session presenter Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin–Madison described us as currently being in an age of “post-normal science”—science where 1) the decision stakes are very high, 2) the science is surrounded by uncertainty, 3) adults have not learned the science in school, and 4) there are ethical concerns about the application of the science. The traditional model of science education has been grounded in the idea that science knowledge leads to understanding and progress in making decisions about important scientific policy. Scheufele’s research, however, shows that values other than scientific data influence decision making in post-normal science issues.
Important findings include:

  • A hostile media effect exists. Perfectly neutral stories will be perceived as biased by both sides (the stronger an individual’s views are, the more a story will be seen as being against his or her side of an issue).
  • Information is not enough. The idea that if people are more informed they’ll make better decisions is empirically not true.
  • How facts are described is really important. Descriptions can stigmatize (for example, opponents describing genetically modified food as “Frankenfood.”) Framing into individuals’ own experiences, such as through the use of analogies, is powerful. And it is essential to connect science to what one already knows.
  • How language of science is translated is hugely important. For example, intelligent design proponents’ use of “just a theory” referring to the scientific theory of evolution resonates.

So how can museums incorporate this research into their own science communication? Provocative Questions, an activity in the Museum of Science’s Hall of Human Life, recognizes that meaningful debate and discussion require more than scientific data. The activity encourages visitors to think about about three things as they investigate and make decisions about science policy questions—scientific evidence, personal experience, and social values.

Citizens need to be able to meaningfully debate policy choices with scientific focus. Scheufele’s research shows that recognizing influences other than science information in these debates can help in finding shared values that can lead to conclusions, not just division.