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The "Science Communication Problem": Two (of four) false starts

From On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge--and Exraordinary Science Ignorance (in press):

2.2. A related false start blames scientists [for the Science Communication Problem--the failure of valid, compelling, widely disseminated science to disepel public disagreement over policy-relevant facts].

If members of the public aren’t converging on some policy-relevant facts despite the clarity of the evidence, the reason must be that scientists are failing to convey the evidence clearly enough (e.g., Brownell, Price & Steinman 2013). Or maybe they are speaking out too clearly, crossing the line from factfinder to policy advocate in a manner that compromises their credibility. Or perhaps what is compromising their credibility is how cagily they are hiding their advocacy by implausibly asserting that the  facts uniquely determine particular policy outcomes (e.g., Fischoff 2007).

While one can make a compelling normative case for either clearer (Olson 2009; Dean 2009) or less opinionated speech (Lempert, Groves & Fischbach 2013) by scientists, the idea that how scientists talk is the cause of the Science Communication Problem is palpably unconvincing. 

Again, all one has to do is look at science issues that don’t provoke persistent controversy. How about raw milk (Sci., Media, & Public Res. Group 2016)? Is there some reason to believe biologists have been doing a better job explaining pasteurization than climate scientists have been doing explaining the greenhouse effect? What folksy idioms or tropes did the former use that were so effective in quieting political polarization?  Or was it that they just were more genuinely neutral on whether people should drink their milk straight up from the cow’s udder?

Here, obviously, I’m relying on a pile of rhetorical questions in lieu of evidence. But the absence of evidence is my evidence.

No one has ever thought it worthwhile to “regress” the difference in public acceptance of, say, the scientific consensus on the dangers of ozone depletion and the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change on the clarity and policy-neutrality of the National Academy of Sciences’ respective reports on those issues (e.g, National Research Council 1976, 1982, 2008, 2011); or the difference between how rapidly and near-universally states adopted the proposed addition of the adolescent HBV vaccinationand how persistently they have resisted adoption of the HPV vaccine  (Kahan 2013) on the clarity and policy-neutrality of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ endorsements of both (American Academy of Pediatrics 1992, 2007).  

Likely no one has because it’s clear to the naked ear that what these groups of scientists had to say on the uncontested members of these societal-risk pairs was no less obscure and no less opinionated than what they had to say about the contested members of them. But whatever the source of the omission, the inclusion of only contested cases in the “sample” necessarily defeats any valid inference from the “obscurity” or “partisanship” of how scientists speak to why any particular policy-relevant fact is affected by the Science Communication Problem.

2.3.  Another false-start account of the Science Communication Problem attributes it to growing resistance to the authority of science itself. Along with widespread disbelief in evolution, political conflict over global warming or other issues is variously depicted as evidence of either the “anti-science” sensibilities of a particular segment of the public or of a creeping anti-science strain in American culture generally (e.g., Frank 2013). 

Anyone who manages to divert his gaze from the Science Communication Problem for even an instant is sure to spy evidence massively out of keeping with this account. In its biennial Science Indicators series, for example, the National Science Foundation  (2016) includes survey measures that consistently evince effusive degrees of confidence in and support for science (Figure 2). These levels of support do not vary meaningfully across groups defined by their political outlooks or degrees of religiosity (Figure 3). Indeed, the levels of support are so high that it would be impossible for them to harbor practically significant levels of variance across groups of any substantial size.

For behavioral validation of these sensibilities, all one has to do is look up from one’s desk (away from one’s monitor) to see the care-free confidence individuals evince in science when making decisions both mundane (the ingestion of a pill to preempt hair loss) and vital (submission to radiation therapy for cancer).


Because this evidence is so obvious, it’s less likely proponents of the “age of denial” thesis don’t see it than that they see it as irrelevant. On this view, confusion over or outright rejection of the admittedly authoritative evidence that science has collected on human-caused climate change or human evolution just is evidence of a deficit in the cultural authority of science.

Fine. But at that point what started out as an explanation for the Science Communication Problem has transmuted, ironically, into a piece of evidence-impervious dogma that rules out contrary proof  by definitional fiat. 


American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Infectious Diseases. Universal hepatitis B immunization. Pediatrics 8, 795-800 (1992).

American Academy of Pediatrics. HPV Vaccine Does Not Lead to Increased Sexual Activity (2012),

American Academy of Pediatrics. Prevention of Human Papillomavirus Infection: Provisional Recommendations for Immunization of Girls and Women With Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus Vaccine. Pediatrics 120, 666-668 (2007).

Brownell, S.E., Price, J.V. & Steinman, L. Science communication to the general public: why we need to teach undergraduate and graduate students this skill as part of their formal scientific training. J. Undergraduate Neuroscience Educ. 12, E6 (2013).

Dean, C. Am I making myself clear? : a scientist's guide to talking to the public (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2009).

Fischhoff, B. Nonpersuasive Communication about Matters of Greatest Urgency: Climate Change. Environmental Science & Technology 41, 7204-7208 (2007).

Frank, A. Welcome to the age of denial. N.Y. Times (Aug. 21, 2013), available at

“Green Goo: Nanotechnology Comes Alive.” (Feb. 2003), at

Lempert, R.J., Groves, D.G. & Fischbach, J.R. Is it Ethical to Use a Single Probability Density Function? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013). Available at.

National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate. & National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Stabilization Targets for Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Concentrations. Climate stabilization targets : emissions, concentrations, and impacts over decades to millennia (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011).

National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Chemistry and Physics of Ozone Depletion. Causes and effects of stratospheric ozone reduction, an update : a report (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1982).

National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Ecological impacts of Climate Change. Ecological impacts of climate change (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008).

National Research Council (U.S.). Panel on Atmospheric Chemistry. Halocarbons, environmental effects of chlorofluoromethane release (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, 1976).

National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (Wash. D.C., 2016).

Olson, R. Don't be such a scientist : talking substance in an age of style (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009).

Science, Media, and the Public Research Group (SCIMEP).. Exploring Public Opinion and Risk Perceptions of Food in Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Madison, WI: Department of Life  Sciences Communication (2016). Available from

Vance, M.E., Kuiken, T., Vejerano, E.P., McGinnis, S.P., Hochella, M.F., Jr., Rejeski, D. & Hull, M.S. Nanotechnology in the real world: Redeveloping the nanomaterial consumer products inventory. Beilstei

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Reader Comments (1)

Very nicely stated. Thanks.

July 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

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