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October 23, 2013

Connecting with the Audience

The Science of Science Communication

By Shilo Rea

The public, and at times the political, dialogue on climate change is one clear example of how difficult effective science communication can be. Many topics - from immunization and other health issues to using "smart" electricity grids - require a basic grasp of the relevant science.

Baruch Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy, is a leader in bringing together the social, behavioral and decision sciences into the science of science communication.

Last year, he co-organized a conference at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) bringing together scientists with stories to tell and experts who can help them to tell those stories. This year, he co-organized the second conference.

"People need to know about science in order to make good decisions, as individuals and citizens," Fischhoff said. "Working scientists are often gifted communicators in the classroom. However, they may have a harder time reaching broader audiences, where they lack the direct connections needed to learn what information people want and how well they are providing it. Social science research can provide that connection."

NAS held "The Science of Science Communication" Sackler Colloquium Sept. 23-25. The sold-out event attracted more than 500 scientists and communicators, with more than 10,000 watching live webcasts. Topics included the influence of social networks, the politicization of science, and dealing with uncertainty - as well as how content goes viral and what difference that makes. (Hint: Lady Gaga retweeting about a social networking book did not affect sales.)

Fischhoff's presentation, "Communicating Uncertainty," outlined the challenges of explaining research findings when the results are not cut-and-dry. To overcome uncertainty, he suggested creating standard procedures for making and communicating decisions, a resource center to provide experts with publication-quality support, and shared understanding of essential analytical approaches.

CMU also was represented by Julie Downs, associate research professor of social and decision sciences, and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, a research scientist in engineering and public policy. Wong-Parodi and Climate Central's Ben Strauss presented a dramatized summary of their collaboration on the design of the Surging Seas website. Downs showed how interactive media can improve adolescent health by helping teens to make better decisions.

"Once you develop a narrative, you must make sure that it will work," Downs advised. "Pilot test it with your target audience, then refine it, and test again." She also represented the science of communication in a working group on obesity and nutrition.

Another highlight was Deb Roy, professor at MIT and chief media scientist at Twitter, and his discussion on "Charting Science Chatter Through Social Media." Using the powerful reach of television viewers and Twitter users as an example, Roy explained how Twitter was becoming "the social soundtrack for life."

In addition to Fischhoff, the conference was co-organized by Ralph J. Cicerone, president of NAS and chair of the National Research Council; Barbara A. Schaal, the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis; Dietram A. Scheufele, the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

For more information on the Science of Science Communication - including videos of each presentation - visit