The two-channel strategy/model for satisfying the public's appetite to know what is known by science
Below is a summary of my remarks (or what I can remember of them!) at the AAAS panel I participated in on Friday on Engaging Lay Publics in Museums on Provocative Societal Questions Related to Science. My slides are here. It is part 1 of a 2-part series; in the 2d part, I'll summarize the presentations of co-panelists Lucy Kirschner and Elizabeth Kunz Kollman on a truly astonishing exploratory field-experiment that the Boston Museum of Science conducted in the form of an exhibit designed to promote reflection on the dynamics of public engagement with science relevant to controversial policy issues.
A two-channel strategy (model!) for enlarging satisfaction of the public appetite to know what’s known
1. There are two situations in which professional science communicators get into trouble. The first is when they rely entirely on their intuitions unfortified with evidence. The second is when they ask social scientists what to do based on the evidence and social scientists actually purport to tell them.
The problem with the evidence-free approach is not that professional communicators don’t have any sound intuitions about what to do; it’s that they have too many of them. Their experience-informed insights are always plausible, but here, as elsewhere with complicated social matters, more things are plausible than are true. Hypothesis, observation, and measurement are needed to cull the latter from the former.
The problem with communicators relying on the social scientists to tell them what to do is that the social scientists don’t have practical, experience-based insights into communication. They have models. The models, if they are well-designed, identify the mechanisms of consequence in particular communication settings. Those mechanisms are important for determining which of the communicators’ plausible intuitions are most likely to work. But turning the models that produced the mechanisms are not themselves communication materials. Communicators need to turn those models into materials that till produce those effects in the real-world. Social scientists can’t do it for them: they don’t have evidence on that, and if they just try to guess what will work, they will say many implausible (also empty, self-contradictory) things because they lack local knowledge.
I certainly don’t have reliable intuitions on how to communicate science in a manner that satisfies the appetite of the public (or the appetite of that portion of it that has one) to enjoy the thrill and wonder of knowing what’s known. I am part of that public, and recognize with admiration and gratitude the special craft sense of those who feed the curiosity of me and others who share my interest.
Those who have this special professional skill are intent all the same on improving their art. I have through empirical study acquired knowledge of some of the mechanisms that shape public engagement with science. Is what I know something that will help these communicators? Once they’ve heard what I said, they should tell me.
2. The science of science communication can help communicators only through evidence-based experiments based on social scientist/practitioners collaboration. Based on what the social scientist knows about mechanisms, the communicator will be filled with ideas about how to fashion communication strategies that successfully reproduce the effects of the social scientists’ models in the world. So social scientists shouldn’t tell communicators what to do; communicators should tell social scientists what they think will work. Because here too the communicators will have more plausible intuitions than can be true, their proposals should be regarded as hypotheses. The social scientists can then help the communicators to structure their programs as experiments, ones that generate observations that can be measured and that support valid inferences about what does and doesn’t work. They can use that information. But they should also share it, so others can learn too.
3. A two-channel strategy. The two channel-strategy is a model of communicating science. It tests a hypothesis about how mechanisms associated with science communication conflicts can be neutralized. The basic idea is that ordinary members of the public receive science information along two channels. One transmits content. The other transmits meaning: what is the significance, if any, for my standing in my cultural group associated with crediting or discrediting this information? Conflicts over climate change reflect a conflict between the signals being transmitted along the content channel and the meaning channel; many citizens “push back”—they don’t engage the communication attentively and with an open-mind—because the information conveys meanings that threaten their cultural identity. The CCP experiment on “geoengineering and the science communication environment” is a model of how conscious regulation of the information on the meaning channel can improve engagement with content transmitted along the content channel.
4. The two-channels model and satisfying the public appetite to know what’s known. Some professional science communicators—including science documentary producers and science museum directors—subscribe e to what might be called the “missing science audience thesis” (MAT): that the number of people who enjoy their materials is smaller than the total who possess an appetite to know what’s known and who would find it satisfied (amply and exhilaratingly) by the work these communicators do. Could the two channel-model be of value in overcoming MAT?
The reason to surmise it might be is that the demographic characteristics of these communicators’ current audience suggest the underrepresentation of people of the same cultural style who react dismissively to climate science. These individuals—many of whom have hierarchical and individualistic worldviews—are not anti-science (no significant portion of the American public actually is): they are science literate and share in the prevailing positive view of scientists in American society; they have admiration for technological innovation, including nuclear power, nanotechnology and geoengineering; and like everyone else, they favor making use of science in public policymaking—indeed, like their opponents in culturally factionalized debates over policy-relevant science believe (sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly) that the positions that predominate in their group are consistent with scientific consensus. The two-channel strategy suggests that communicators can tap into the latent receptivity of these citizens to the content of scientific information on climate change by combining that information with cultural meanings that are congenial rather than hostile to their worldviews.
Could MAT originate in an unintended conflict between the information being conveyed along the content and meaning channels? If so, what elements of the information being communicated generate the hostile meanings? How might those be modified to make the signal transmitted along the meaning channel more congenial without changing the one being conveyed along the content channel—since, indeed, the supposition is that the content of these communicators’ materials are exactly what would satisfy the appetite of these citizens to know what’s known?
The communicators at the Boston Museum of science aren’t asking me those questions; they are showing me and others their own answers, which are the animating conjectures of practical field experiments conducted as part of their own work. They are also sharing with others in their extraordinary profession the valuable knowledge that their efforts have generated.
To me, the results bear all the signatures of the scientific advancement of knowledge.
And not surprisingly, given that these field experimenters are also expert communicators, their results inspire in me the same thrill and awe that I experience whenever I cross the bridge that their craft supplies between my curiosity and the wondrous discoveries of science.