Up For Debate: How We Talk About Science

Everyone agrees that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields are important, but helping the public understand and gain an appreciation of complex scientific advancements is a much more nuanced issue. Simply presenting factual information about a hot-button topic—such as climate change—is not sufficient, as the very nature of the topic may sway participants toward accepting research as valid…or rejecting it outright.

Dietram Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, and other colleagues in the department of Life Sciences Communication are studying “motivated reasoning,” or how identical scientific facts can lead people to vastly different conclusions. In partnership with the Morgridge Institute for Research, they plan to measure the outcomes of different messaging techniques, and design and test the effectiveness of new strategies for communicating complex research.

Complex research often raises ethical, legal, and political concerns, and people are often uneasy about the implications of new developments. While there are no “best” answers, only “best possible” answers, Scheufele and Brossard have already proven how opinion, not fact, can change someone’s point of view—a 2012 project showed that online comments on scientific articles can color perceptions about the validity of the original story.

Since public engagement can have an immense impact on the scientific community, Scheufele and Brossard are hoping to be able to foster conversation about where science is headed, rather than shutting down discussion entirely. Helping people understand the principles involved and evaluate topics based on that information instead of having a personal reaction to a topic is an important step in increasing our scientific literacy as a nation.