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Public Understanding of Science - Lecture 2 #SciCommLSU
Zeynep Altinay, Paige Brown
Public engagement in science
Effective science communication requires initiatives that
Public participation across social settings and media
Deficit Model of Science Communication
False premise that deficits in public knowledge are the
central culprit of societal conflict / public mistrust of
science. This has led to initiatives to educate the public
about technical details in science.
“Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more
likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away.”
Science literacy ≠ public support of science
A person’s existing knowledge, opinions, attitudes, values
and ideology will shape how they interpret scientific
Implications of Deficit Model
Blaming journalists for poor coverage of science and
Pointing out lack of public science literacy
Efforts to put out fact sheets on the scientific basis of issues
like climate change, for example.
A call for “more Carl Sagans”
“We live in a society absolutely dependent on
science and technology and yet have cleverly
arranged things so that almost no one
understands science and technology. That's a
clear prescription for disaster.” – Carl Sagan
Problems with the Deficit Model
“Condescending claims of ‘public ignorance’ too often serve
to further alienate key audiences, especially in the case of
evolutionary science, where these charges are mixed with
atheist critiques of religion (Nisbet, 2009).”
Early science bloggers like PZ Myers (Pharyngula) likely feed
public debates over evolution instead of leading to a more
Studies actually show that science literacy only accounts for
small differences in how people form opinions about
controversial areas of science (Allum et al. 2008). Stronger
influences include ideology, partisanship, religious identity.
Jon Kudelka's cartoon sums up the frustrations from communicating climate
change to the public. (Jon Kudelka )
Beyond the Deficit Model
Despite low levels of scientific literacy, the U.S. public is highly
trusting of scientists.
Pew Research Center, 2009 survey: 84% of Americans agree that
science is having a mostly positive effect on society.
The public holds scientists in high-esteem, on similar levels as
military and teachers. 70% of Americans say that scientists
“contribute a lot” to society, compared to 38% for journalists,
23% for lawyers, 40% for clergy, 21% for business executives.
Scientists might use this public trust and esteem to sponsor
dialogue, invite different perspectives and facilitate public
participation. Communicators can help facilitate this
Beyond the Science
Often, where public controversies or polarization over
scientific issues occur, it’s because the scientific issue has
political, economic, societal, or other value-laden
We can’t separate out people’s values from their opinions
toward scientific issues.
Communication on scientific issues such as climate change
must take into account readers’ values, ideology, existing
knowledge, attitudes, and even their social context.
Beyond the Science
Increasingly, science communicators are focusing on
What different groups / individuals want to know about
climate change, etc.
Implications of science issues (climate change) for people’s
What people’s own concerns are when it comes to science-related
Who people want to hear from when it comes to science-related
issue (scientists, people in their own communities,
Conveying personal relevance: tying scientific issues to
things people already value or prioritize
*We will learn more about science-related value systems later
Frames are ‘storylines’ that
describe how journalists
selective cover some
scientific issues, and how
diverse publics perceive,
understand and participate
in these issues differently.
For example, emphasizing
religious or moral
dimensions of climate
change. Or making climate
change a matter of public
safety / health.
May reinforce partisan divides
May reinforce partisan divides; falsely balancing
competing claims (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004).
A Typology of frames applicable to science-related policy debates
Emergence of Public Health / Local Frames
“The public health frame stresses climate change’s
potential to increase the incidence of infectious
diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke, and other
salient health problems, especially among the most
vulnerable populations: the elderly and children. In the
process, the public health frame makes climate change
personally relevant to new audiences by connecting the
issue to health problems that are already familiar and
perceived as important.”
“The frame also shifts the geographic location of
impacts, replacing visuals of remote Arctic regions,
animals, and peoples with more socially proximate
neighbors and places across local communities and
cities. Coverage at local television news outlets and
specialized urban media is also generated.”
Beyond Media Frames
It’s important to realize that individuals in the
“audience” also have their own applicable lay
knowledge about science-related debates, based on
their personal experience, culture and conventional
wisdom. (Wynne 1992).
Science communication should take this knowledge,
and people’s personal experiences, into account.
Framing scientific issues can be used more ethically by
prioritizing dialogue and citizen expression.
Through user-centered and user-controlled digital
media like blogs and social media, the ‘former
audience’ is developing their own ‘frames’ or ways of
interpreting scientific issues.
Getting Science Information
Significant shifts from television (still the
primary source of information for 65 years
or older) to online sources (which are the
preferred media for more than half of
those under 24 years old)
(Pew Research Center for the
People & the Press, 2008).
Those who rely on new information
technologies for news rate higher on
interest in science-related issues.
As of 2012, the Internet is now the main
source of information for learning about
specific scientific issues (NSF, 2012).
Getting Science Information – New Media
In 2010, science and technology stories composed 12% of
the most-linked-to blog subjects in a given week; in 2009,
that figure was 17%. On Twitter, science and technology
made up 38% of the most-linked-to subjects in a given week
in 2010, down from 48% in 2009.
Discussion: How do YOU think about
Sea Level Rise
What do you know about it?
What does it mean to you?
Where do you get information on this issue?
How could this be framed in different ways?
How would you communicate about this issue?