Science Communication


What is Science Communication?
Science communication distills complex topics into more accessible lay language, to be shared with a non-expert audience. Effective communication helps the public understand the relevance of scientific research to their everyday lives. Effective science communication takes a lot of practice, and scientists are often worried that important (and exciting!) information will be lost in the translation to lay terms. Over the course of the summer, we continuously sought to improve our own abilities as science communicators. As we became more experienced, we developed communication tools, like analogies, to support discussions of complex topics.

What are the Problems Facing Science Literacy?
The general public often lack the tools to distinguish between legitimate science and pseudoscience. Social media has accelerated the sharing of information, but often this information has not been carefully vetted. Rigorous, peer-reviewed science and pseudoscience both spread rapidly on social media. The public would greatly benefit from greater exposure to the scientific method, and tools to enable critical analysis of information. Increased access to reliable sources of scientific content, presented in an accessible manner, is necessary to counter the spread of pseudoscience.

Our Project

This year, the theme for our human practices was science communication and science literacy. To efficiently explore this theme, we divided it into component parts. On this webpage, we describe our science communication efforts. We strove to raise awareness about the importance of science literacy and to establish communication platforms between our lab and the public.

What did we do?
We created a survey early in the summer to gain insight into how our surveyed population felt about interpreting science-based news articles. This survey was distributed around the world and received 271 responses in a span of a month. Afterwards, we formulated questions that reflected some of the surprising results collected from the survey. We then asked these questions to a series of experts in hopes of better understanding our results.

Here are a few key results of the survey (focusing on the population who identified as having a university education):

  1. Approximately a quarter our surveyed population, who identified as having an university education, claimed to not be very comfortable interpreting scientific news publications.

  2. Most of our surveyed population, who identified as having an university education, claimed to trust scientific reports with dramatic and opinionated language to some extent.

  3. More than half of our surveyed population, who identified as having an university education, claimed that half the time they would not verify new scientific claims with a credible source.

  4. A small portion of our surveyed population, who identified as having an university education, claimed to share scientific news articles on social media based solely on the title.

Interviews and Questionnaires
The interviewees are as follows:
  • Science Sam: PhD Candidate at University of Toronto studying Cell Biology and Neuroscience who blogs about lab science on Instagram
  • Bob McDonald: Canadian author and science journalist, currently hosing the CBC radio program - Quirks and Quarks
  • Dan Falk: Canadian science journalist, broadcaster and author (most recent publication: The Science of Shakespeare: A Look at the Playwright's Universe, 2014)
  • Dr. Catherine Reeve: Psychology and Neuroscience professor at Dalhousie University
  • University of Toronto iGEM team: one of our collaborators
  • Olivia Roberts: member of the general public, with a post-secondary degree in music

Interview Response Conclusions
  1. Journalists and scientists who write articles are sometimes biased or exaggerate the results to grab the attention of the public.
  2. People often assume that science-based news articles are credible because they are “science.”
  3. Having a post-secondary education does not mean the person has all the skills required to assess and interpret a scientific article properly. Depending on the degree, and the quality of their education, the person might interpret science in a different way.

Infographic Summary
Our final initiative was to summarize all of our science communication and literacy findings into a brief infographic. This informational material is going to be distributed to the greater Halifax community, as well as online, to raise awareness about to appropriately interpret science-based news articles.

  1. Our sample size was not big enough to represent the entire global community.
  2. Most of our respondents were university students or members of other iGEM teams.
  3. We did not analyze our results based on the types of post-secondary degrees.

Conversations with Communicators

How can Scientists do a Better Job at Communicating Science?

“Science is lacking in trendiness. Our goal is to bring people into science and change mindsets as much as possible. If we want to do that we need to target younger people, and if we want to target younger people we need to be cooler.” Sam believes communicating science involves all platforms, “why aren’t more people live streaming, why aren’t more people snapchatting from lab? Often the science videos you see are so boring, science is exciting, and we should try to communicate that."

“Scientists should be more open by talking to journalists. When a journalist calls, you [a scientist] should welcome it. Scientists, many of whom are partly funded by the public, have a responsibility to talk openly about what they are doing. I appreciate that this is a complicated subject and so that there is no easy fix.”

“You’ve got to put your story in human terms so the people who don’t understand the science will understand. So first set the scene, then get into what you’re doing, and do it in terms of what people might understand…So start there, start with storytelling and set the context. If you want to get into the science of it, you don’t have to teach them everything about the science. You can introduce them to the science, and if they want to know more then give it to them. The journalist has to understand that language and translate it over here for the audience who doesn’t speak that language. We are translators."

How can the Public tell when Science-Based Media is Sketchy?

“That’s really tough. See it’s tough to put the burden on the reader to go look it up. Where would they even look? That being said, any absolutes or anything that sounds too certain is probably fake. Science is all about probabilities. The biggest warning sign is if the article isn’t cited. That’s a pretty standard thing in journalism; [the journalist] should always mention the study.” Other things to look for are if the authors of the article are quoted. "That’s a pretty good sign the article is good."

“Going to other popular media accounts to check their portrayal of the story. If multiple sources are reporting it the same way than that is a strong indication what they are reporting it factually correct. The biggest red flag is when something just sounds wrong. Unfortunately, we all have prejudges towards what we want to believe and therefore you may not just be reading the news but an interpretation of the news.”

“As long as it’s a notable publisher or university, then you are doing well. Again, it’s the source. It doesn’t matter where you’re getting it, you always have to look at the source. If it’s coming from a reputable organization then it’s probably fine. It is important to identify if you are reading an opinion piece, or something sponsored by a company with a hidden agenda. Science is not based on toughts or opinions, it’s based on evidence and experimental results. So again, separate the science from the opinions.”