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Saturday
Aug182012

Honest, constructive & ethically approved response template for science communication researchers replying to "what do I do?" inquiries from science communicators

Dear [fill in name]:

I'd be happy to discuss this [select one: super interesting; interesting; particular] issue with you. I have to warn you, though, that I won't be able to offer you a set of "how to" instructions or guidelines about what you should say, how, or to whom.

As a matter of principal, I won't give that sort of "do's & don't's" advice to you or any other real-world communicator, b/c I think those who use empirical methods to study the general dynamics of science communication shouldn't mislead anyone about the nature of their insights. Study aimed at identifying general mechanisms of science communication utilize surveys & lab experiments. Those forms of study involve deliberately stripped down models that abstract from the cacophony of real-world influences that necessarily confound observation and measurement and compromise control of the particular influences of interest to the researcher.

This method is extremely valuable. It is what warrants that the insights such studies generate about mechanisms of consequence to real-world communication are real and can be relied on. The number of conjectures about how science communication works that are plausible far exceeds the number that are actually true.  Pristine models are the best method for plucking the latter out of the vast sea of the former and thus for steering the discipline of science communication toward profitable roads of engagement and away from alluring dead-ends.

Nevertheless, precisely because this method demands abstracting from the particulars of real-world communication settings, it won't produce determinate and meaningfully specific prescriptions for any real-world communication problem.  

Full realization of utility of this critical research thus depends on field studies that test informed conjectures about how the general mechanisms identified in lab experiments and surveys can be brought to bear on particular communication problems. Design of those types of field studies, in turn, demands the participation of individuals like you, who have situation-specific knowledge relating to the field-communication task at hand.

Social scientists who specialize in acquiring general knowledge of the mechanisms of cognition that shape science communication can play a vital role in field research too because they know what is required for valid observation and measurement of the results that such studies will produce.  But for them to carry on as if the bridge of intelligent field study was unnecessary to connect the mechanisms they have observed in lab experiments and surveys to realistic, concrete, meaningful prescriptions about what to do in particular situations will at best only delay the necessary work that needs to be done, and at worst degrade their findings by making them the fodder of just-so stories--one of the signal abuses of decision science.

Bottom line, then, is that I'm happy to help you think about designing field studies informed by established mechanisms of science communication, or at least making the communication efforts you are already engaged in amenable to empirical observations & measurements. In fact, to be perfect candid, the possibility of helping you design them & then collecting data that could be shared with others is also something that I am likely to try to sneak into our discussion.

Would this sort of advice be useful to you?  If so, perhaps we could talk [select one: right this second; later today; at your earliest convenience].

Yours,

[fill in name]

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