What is the best way to communicate science? Let me suggest that perhaps the best way is not to focus on the communication per se, which is a means, but rather on the end: on learning.
There’s lots of good research that addresses the question of how learning works, and we know quite a bit about what makes humans tick in general. Yet technical and scientific communication persists as a difficult problem.
To be sure, there are problems of knowledge and culture. But part of the problem is about authority. Public challenges to scientific expertise can be understood in many different ways, most of them negative (e.g., the audience is uninformed, their reactions are irrational and emotional, etc.). But research also suggests that these challenges are more complex and can perhaps even be understood as a resource, not a problem.
Public communication of science is almost never simply about the science. It is also about policy, ethics, politics, identity, and so on. Efforts to isolate the technical or scientific issues often falter because of their narrowness and the ways in which the resulting communication is disconnected from human experience. To engage people around issues of science means that we must engage people where they are and in terms of how they experience their worlds.
I was fortunate to be part of a sequence of studies that examined the possibilities of learning in digital environments, hosted and facilitated by the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. Our second project, in particular, investigated facilitation styles and their outcomes during Experimonths in environments like blogs, Facebook, and the discussion forums of Project FeederWatch. We learned that these digital spaces are, in fact, active learning environments and that facilitation techniques in social media environments can be powerful influences on learning. These techniques can also be modeled, learned, and used with fidelity by other educators and communicators who facilitate public science discourse.
We also learned that constructing informal learning environments where participants ask and answer practical questions about matters of concern can create high levels of public science engagement. When facilitated with care, social media spaces can act as forums that encourage links between scientific knowledge and local concerns, including ethical, political, emotional and experiential issues. A few conversations we observed even took place over a number of years, and these became a medium for constructing scientific understanding by linking “outside” scientific knowledge and local, non-specialists’ knowledge—something that must be done over and over to establish the truth-value of scientific facts relative to human experience.
The communicative complexity of these situations—scenes that play out daily in a range of contexts—would not be achieved through a public engagement model that seeks simply to inform members of the public about science concepts or facts. Nor would it likely emerge as part of dialogues in which scientists overdetermine the argumentative frameworks, including the questions or topics worth discussing. In other words, we may have facilitated high-quality scientific communication by focusing on something else: learning.
New technologies can be particularly good at providing mechanisms by which participants can help frame conversations with representatives of scientific institutions. Furthermore, such technologies (along with good facilitation) can help support conversations in which disagreement can happen productively and in ways that encourage participants to reexamine assumptions and explore what is driving public interest in science. Yet I want to end where I began, and to echo many of the sentiments in the Culture of Science Engagement report: the cultural issues in which all public science concerns are embedded can be seen as resources for understanding. A focus on “learning” rather than “communication” may be a more productive way to think about how to structure public engagement around science.