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"Science of Science Communication" course, version 2.0

This semester I will be teaching my "science of science communication" course for 2nd time.  

I got my act together this time, too, and had the course, which is a Psychology Dept graduate offering, cross-listed in the School of Public Health, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, plus the Law School.  The value of the "science of science communication," it seems to me, depends entirely on the function it can perform in integrating the production of scientific knowledge & science-informed policymaking, on the one hand, with scientific knowledge of the processes by which people come to know what is known by science, on the other. So obviously, offerings like this shouldn't be "in the course catalog" of only decision-science or communication-science disciplines.... 

Anyway, like last time, I'm going to see if I can offer a "virtual" counterpart of the course via this blog.

I'll post course materials, as they become available, here.  Unfortunately, I can't post the readings themselves, since access to portions of them is restricted to users covered by one or another of Yale University's site licenses or subscriptions to various commercial content providers. But I will post the reading lists & various "open access" materials.

After each "real space" session, though, I'll post some sort of synopsis or argument or whatever as a "starter" for discussion.  People can weigh in based on their access to that, plus whatever else they can get their hands on -- including materials other than those assigned to students enrolled in the course at Yale!

This worked pretty well last time, except I wasn't as conscientious as I should have been in posting "starters."

This time I'll do better!

Below I've posted the "course catalog" description of the course, plus the "manifesto" that introduces the course requirements & topics etc.


The Science of Science Communication, PSYC 601b, FES 862b, HPM 601, LAW 21141. The simple dissemination of valid scientific knowledge does not guarantee it will be recognized by non-experts to whom it is of consequence. The science of science communication is an emerging, multidisciplinary field that investigates the processes that enable ordinary citizens to form beliefs consistent with the best available scientific evidence, the conditions that impede the formation of such beliefs, and the strategies that can be employed to avoid or ameliorate such conditions. This seminar surveys, and makes a modest attempt to systematize, the growing body of work in this area. Special attention is paid to identifying the distinctive communication dynamics of the diverse contexts in which non-experts engage scientific information, including electoral politics, governmental policy making, and personal health decision making.

* * *

1. Overview. The most effective way to communicate the nature of this course is to identify its motivation.  We live in a place and at a time in which we have ready access to information—scientific information—of unprecedented value to our individual and collective welfare. But the proportion of this information that is effectively used—by individuals and by society—is shockingly small. The evidence for this conclusion is reflected in the manifestly awful decisions people make, and outcomes they suffer as a result, in their personal health and financial planning. It is reflected too not only in the failure of governmental institutions to utilize the best available scientific evidence that bears on the safety, security, and prosperity of its members, but in the inability of citizens and their representatives even to agree on what that evidence is or what it signifies for the policy tradeoffs acting on it necessarily entails.

This course is about remedying this state of affairs. Its premise is that the effective transmission of consequential scientific knowledge to deliberating individuals and groups is itself a matter that admits of, and indeed demands, scientific study.  The use of empirical methods is necessary to generate an understanding of the social and psychological dynamics that govern how people (members of the public, but experts too) come to know what is known to science. Such methods are also necessary to comprehend the social and political dynamics that determine whether the best evidence we have on how to communicate science becomes integrated into how we do science and how we make decisions, individual and collective, that are or should be informed by science.

Likely you get this already: but this course is not simply about how scientists can avoid speaking in jargony language when addressing the public or how journalists can communicate technical matters in comprehensible ways without mangling the facts.  Those are only two of many science communication” problems, and as important as they are, they are likely not the ones in most urgent need of study (I myself think science journalists have their craft well in hand, but we’ll get to this in time).  Indeed, in addition to dispelling (assaulting) the fallacy that science communication is not a matter that requires its own science, this course will self-consciously attack the notion that the sort of scientific insight necessary to guide science communication is unitary, or uniform across contexts—as if the same techniques that might help a modestly numerate individual understand the probabilistic elements of a decision to undergo a risky medical procedure were exactly the same ones needed to dispel polarization over climate science! We will try to individuate the separate domains in which a science of science communication is needed, and take stock of what is known, and what isn’t but needs to be, in each.

The primary aim of the course comprises these matters; a secondary aim is to acquire a facility with the empirical methods on which the science of science communication depends.  You will not have to do empirical analyses of any particular sort in this class. But you will have to make sense of many kinds.  No matter what your primary area of study is—even if it is one that doesn’t involve empirical methods—you can do this.  If you don’t yet understand that, then perhaps that is the most important thing you will learn in the course. Accordingly, while we will not approach study of empirical methods in a methodical way, we will always engage critically the sorts of methods that are being used in the studies we examine, and I from time to time will supplement readings with more general ones relating to methods.  Mainly, though, I will try to enable you to see (by seeing yourself and others doing it) that apprehending the significance of empirical work depends on recognizing when and how inferences can be drawn from observation: if you know that, you can learn whatever more is necessary to appreciate how particular empirical methods contribute to insight; if you don’t know that, nothing you understand about methods will furnish you with reliable guidance (just watch how much foolishness empirical methods separated from reflective, grounded inference can involve).

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Reader Comments (7)

More "Science Communication" from our good friend Lewandowsky, Oberaurer and Gignac who authored "The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science" (2013) in PLOS ONE.

--- "Age turned out not to correlate with any of the indicator variables."

"This is grossly false. It can only be made true if we include the fake data. If we remove the fake data, especially the 32,757-year-old, age correlates with most of their variables. It correlates with six of their nine conspiracy items, and with their "conspiracist ideation" combined index. It also correlates with views of vaccines – a major variable in their study"

January 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Nice going on this course.
I really need to see where you go with it.
I am doing experimental work in this field right now.
One bit that I am working on is scientists presenting data as more solid than it really is and then getting defensive when the public or other scientists ask them for details.
I am also working on scientists who want to be accepted as authorities by the public even when they are speaking beyond their expertise and will not learn the new field.
My other current difficulty is learning to talk in a way that gets people to rethink their belief structure when strong scientific evidence says that their beliefs can't be true.
Any suggestions, in the course or beyond, would be appreciated.

January 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield


Well, I myself always remove any subject from my dataset who claims to be over 10,000 yrs old.

But as I'm sure you know, this is a very contentious issue.

January 7, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

It is indeed. How to handle outliers is a common problem.

Do you just remove them and carry on, figuring that now they're gone there are no problems? Or do you figure that the assumptions you were making about the distribution that led you to identify them as outliers are clearly invalid, investigate, and re-design your experiment to ensure a valid measurement?

One approach leads one to draw a circle around where you expect the result to be, erase all the observations outside the circle, and then take the mean of the points that are left. This always leads to good results, close to expectations and with a tight distribution.

The other approach is far harder, messier, and more open-ended. In this case, you would conclude that people were feeding in bogus data and your existing precautions weren't detecting or preventing them. Removing the most obviously false answers doesn't necessarily help - others may have been more subtle in their misinformation. You can't trust any of the other answers either. You would instead redesign your experiment to ensure people were more likely to be telling the truth, and that you were more likely to spot it if they weren't.

The instrument before you is labelled 'thermometer", but is reading 470 C in your back garden today. Some people would excitedly report the dramatic upturn in global warming today. Some people would quietly delete all those reading that didn't fit their preconceptions about what a temperature ought to look like, and report the rest without comment. Yet others would question whether the instrument really was working as a thermometer, and ask for it to be re-calibrated and proven to work correctly before proceeding.

I find it really surprising how truly contentious this is - to say which of these three approaches is acceptable science.

But I find many people dismiss my opinions, just because I'm 9,700 years old. I'm so glad to hear that you won't be!

January 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

FYI for other people planning to take the "virtual course," most of the readings for the first week are available free online. I've created an Evernote notebook with all readings I could find (including some abstracts where full studies were unavailable). If you post or send me your email address, I can share the notebook with you. (tamar AT tamarwilner DOT com)

I wasn't sure what the sources were for items 1, 4, 8, 9, 10 and 12, so I didn't locate these.

January 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

Hey Dan - for week 6, reading list item no. 9 - does that refer to this?
(and more specifically to this?:


February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner


It is something produced in an ESCI study

February 12, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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