The Methods and Madness of Communicating Science

By Thomas Headley

Headley cover image

Adapted from photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Science permeates more than ever through all aspects of the world. Headlines share the latest developments in medical treatments, scientific breakthroughs, and more recently, the science behind COVID-19. We are presented with study after study, statistics of survival and risk, and other information that is not easily interpreted by the public. What are we to do with this onslaught of scientific information? My inquiry will dive into the problems that plague the field of scientific communication and the effects that it has on the surrounding society. I will investigate what problems exist with scientific communication and why it is important to fix this epidemic of misinformation and misinterpretation. Sources do not all agree on the problems and solutions, but the inquiry will lead to a more complete understanding of the field. This investigation into how science can be communicated and interpreted effectively could lead to a new paradigm of thinking about how science and the world it inhabits can cohesively interact.

Scientific communication affects most of the world around us. Scientific communication is simply the process of how science is communicated through any medium or method. Scientists and researchers use it to get their findings and accomplishments out to the world for practical or theoretical use. News companies and other media use scientific communication as content to keep their audiences informed and intrigued. Healthcare professionals and other industries use scientific communication to enhance the goods and services that they offer. And lastly, but arguably most importantly, the public uses scientific communication to improve their well-being, learn of new medical practices and scientific breakthroughs, and understand the world around them. Almost everyone has a stake in the state of scientific communication. That is why it is important to examine this important mode of communication in a holistic manner spanning the communicators, the message itself, and the audiences that scientific communication reaches.

The implications of scientific communication are much more real and tangible than one may initially believe them to be. Throughout history, both poor and effective communication of science has had real-world impacts that change the environment around them. An example of effective communication that Philadelphia Inquirer health and science journalist Tom Avril highlights is the news coverage that followed the launch of the Soviet Union’s first satellite Sputnik in 1957. The Western scientific world was called on to explain the new phenomenon of space satellites and the possible dangers they presented. Scientific experts used effective communication to both calm the public about the supposed dangers posed by the satellite and to increase awareness and funding for scientific exploration resulting in amazing astronomical feats (Avril). Scientists during this time were able to communicate effectively by being transparent in their explanations and by dismantling any false claims made about the satellite launch.

Another fantastic exposition of effective scientific communication was showcased by Vox’s Kelsey Piper in her article about the global response to the ozone crisis of the later twentieth century. She details how, when scientists found that there was a hole forming in the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere, the world used effective communication to reverse the effects. Scientists and other officials communicated the risk of ozone depletion by making it tangible to the audience since almost everyone can relate to skin cancer, which ozone helps defend against. The effectiveness of the communication is seen through the near-complete healing of the ozone layer seen today (Piper). This wonderful example shows how certain techniques can be used in communication to help with its effectiveness. Like the aftermath of Sputnik, the ozone campaign shows again how amazing societal results can be achieved with the effective communication of science.

Unfortunately, not all scientific communication is done effectively, as the following examples will illustrate. Indian Gynecologist Dr. R. K. Bhathena MD calls attention to when, in 1995, the United Kingdom’s Committee on Safety Medicines issued a statement that a new generation of hormone contraceptives increased the risk of developing a blood clot for those that took it. This statement received widespread news coverage and resulted in ten-thousand extra abortions and an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies, especially among teenagers. It was soon revealed that the Committee presented the information using a non-transparent statistical measure that embellished the actual risk of developing a blood clot (Bhathena). Regardless of whether the committee intended for their communication to be misleading, this so-called “pill scare” could have been avoided through clearer communication of this scientific data.

Scientific communication has come to the forefront of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists and health officials were forced to present information for which they had little data or evidence amidst an ever-changing situation. Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH is a health systems researcher at the international non-profit Aspen Institute. She has highlighted two glaring failures of communication during the pandemic. The first instance occurred when evidence on the effectiveness of face masks was sparse and the supply of them was limited. Early on in the pandemic, health officials declared that masks were not necessary, only to then reverse their advice shortly after (Nabi). The confused communication over mask effectiveness contributed to the hesitancy and refusal of masking seen in some areas. Furthermore, when COVID-19 vaccines began to be rolled out across the country, there was confusion over the efficacy of varying brands of the vaccine. In one case, the confusion around efficacy caused the mayor of Detroit to turn away thousands of doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine when doses were still rare (Nabi). Many other scientific communication failures have occurred during the pandemic, but they all underscore the importance that scientific communication plays in our world, as it has serious consequences whether they be beneficial or detrimental to society.

We have seen now that scientific communication plays an important role in the world for many reasons, but we have yet to identify the causes of ineffective scientific communication. There are not only problems on the communicators’ behalf but also problems that are the public audience’s responsibility. Concerning the researchers and scientists, obvious problems with communication exist. Medical doctors Christopher Lowrey and Priya Venkatesan point out that most communication produced from scientists and researchers is written for journals whose target audience is other scientists (254). So, by extension, the communication is filled with technical terms and other jargon that is generally inaccessible for the masses.

Another problem associated with the producers of scientific information is that, when making publications, they present their findings in a way that is shocking or provides a newsworthy headline. Risk statisticians and communication experts Alexandra Freeman and David Spiegelhalter find that the embellishment of research can be attributed to the increased competition among scientists to secure funding and ultimately make a name for themselves in a world of science that is more populated than ever before (1-2). I found the conflict of interest within the world of science to be surprising considering the environment of professionalism and objectivity that scientific endeavors are usually associated with. The exaggeration of scientific research can have egregious consequences in the world, especially as the next player in the communication process comes into play.

Since most scientists’ communication is full of confusing and technical terms too difficult to comprehend for the common citizen, there is often a mediator to make the jump from researcher to public. This generally takes the form of science journalists, who have the expertise to help decode the main points of a published piece of science. Scientific journalists usually gain their expertise by having a science-related degree and through the journalistic encounters that they have while conducting their jobs. Additionally, many scientific journalists further specialize their journalism in a field such as medicine, technology, and others. But the mediator role of journalists in scientific communication also has problems associated with it.

Firstly, the journalists will often take phrases verbatim from scientific journals, which can include the previously mentioned exaggerated findings. For example, one study included the headline, “Authors find that there is no safe limit of alcohol,” even though when examined more closely, the study found that, when drinking one drink a day for a year, only one more person would develop a health problem in a group of twenty-five thousand (Freeman and Spiegelhalter 1). Journalists similarly spread the misleading UK pill statistic without examining the research methods that the headline was based upon. Even though these headlines are glaringly misleading, the journalists who reported it used the same headline in the exact phrasing. Journalists could be likely to do this because naturally they too have a conflict of interest regarding the production of attention-grabbing headlines that ultimately helps provides their paycheck. The sources analyzed here point to there being a severe lack of accountability within the field of science communication. What this means is that if there is no one qualified enough in a media company to check these journalists, a cycle develops between misleading science and the media who need intriguing content for their audiences.

Journalists and media who report scientific information also fall victim to the current state of news reporting and bias seen generally across all forms of communication in the present day. Sadly, media reporting was not always this way. Stanford political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey found that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 1987 striking down of the Fairness Doctrine, a rule for media that forced them to report information factually in the interest of the public good, exacerbated the environment in which media bias can occur (7656). In other words, the FCC’s decision ushered in the biased media era in which scientific journalists operate within. For journalists who work for a media company that has an agenda, their reporting must follow the company’s point of view, which can lead to scientific communication being ineffective and even misleading. For instance, a reporter may see a misleading scientific paper, but if the proposed results help push a specific narrative, they may report the research as a reputable scientific source. CNBC’s Jessica Bursztynsky illustrated this when she reported that the far-right One America News Network (OANN) published content that claimed to have found a cure for COVID-19 and was subsequently banned from posting on YouTube (Bursztynsky). Learning the origins and reasons for misinformation helped me to understand why so many seemingly straightforward topics in science can be diluted to complete misinformation.

Where does the public come into play during the scientific communication process? Their role in scientific communication is that of the audience. As an audience, the bias of scientific communication has drastic effects on the public because they have little expertise to rebuke information as factual or misleading. The public is often forced to take information at face value, especially when it comes to scientific communication that deals with subjects very foreign to the common citizen. Additionally, the general population is “statistically illiterate” according to health statistician Gerd Gigerenzer and his research team (54). Ultimately, this means that the average citizen is unable to interpret the statistics and probabilities that are used to report risk and other metrics of scientific information. Though the statistics themselves may be misleading, the public’s inability to interpret a key tenet of scientific communication can contribute to the communication’s effectiveness. Given how prevalent numerical findings are in scientific communication, it makes sense that the audience’s ability to interpret them is of extreme importance. In summary, the functionality of scientific communication can depend on the combined efforts of those that communicate the information as well as those that receive it.

Even though good scientific communication depends on a collective effort between communicators and audiences, most of the responsibility falls upon the communicators. Scientists, researchers, and media reporters of science carry most of the influence over a communication’s effectiveness since they are the originators and composers of it. Some of the problems addressed have proposed solutions while others remain symptoms of the modern world we live in, but for now, we will focus on what can be done to clean up the communication of science. Freeman and Spiegelhalter encourage researchers to present their findings in a non-alarming way that shows the uncertainty of their work (3). In other words, scientists need to present their findings in a way that does not draw bold conclusions from a small body of research. One way of doing this is by using absolute statistics instead of often-used relative statistics (Gigerenzer 88-90). A good example of this was the previously mentioned alcohol study. If researchers and media would have used the absolute statistical risk—meaning what actually occurred, not relatively compared to a control group—the findings would have been less alarming and would not give connotations of being certain. The same negative consequences could have been avoided in the UK if the real statistical risk of the contraceptive pill was communicated. Essentially, communicators need to be as transparent and clear as possible when communicating science, especially when it involves numerical components.

Another proposed solution to the communicators’ problems with scientific communication is the use of empathy in their communications. Washington University marketing administrator Shawn Ballard explains that Professor of Chemistry Sophia Hayes found that using stories, analogies, and other tools used to relate to an audience can increase the effectiveness of a communication (Ballard). Hayes means that researchers should use an emotional connection to get their point across, because it makes the science seem more tangible and accessible to the common person. Additionally, using empathy and emotion as a communication tool makes scientists more relatable to the public, which creates open communication channels. I found Hayes’s approach to be ingenious as empathetic language can be so powerful in other forms of communication such as advertising, politics, among others. The aforementioned example of the ozone communication campaign is a great demonstration of how empathy is an effective communication tool. Even though communication depends heavily on the communicators, the audience too has solutions that can help in the overall viability of science communication.

There are a few simple proposals for making scientific communication more approachable that the public can utilize. Gigerenzer’s team suggests the public work to increase their statistical literacy, even calling for statistics and probability to be taught as early as reading and writing (83-84). Since teaching the entire population how to interpret statistics is a huge undertaking, a starting point is understanding that most scientific findings are not certainties. Research is almost always bound to change in the future, so taking any scientific communication as gospel is not a good way to approach scientific information (Gigerenzer 58). Other simple ways for audiences to improve their understanding of science are to examine a piece of communication and ask the following questions proposed by scientific journalist Anna Funk: “Who funded and completed the study?” “Do the results support the conclusions?” and lastly, “Do other studies agree with the conclusions?” (Funk). These questions may be tedious, but they allow the audience to assess the science’s bias, transparency, and consensus among experts. The sources here illustrate that the audience too has a role to play in scientific communication, specifically that the public should take the initiative and do some of their own investigations into understanding science.

The world of scientific communication is diverse, ever-changing, and affects every person no matter who they are. Science is becoming more integrated into all aspects of the world through medicine, education, and other disciplines. My investigation underscores that the problems plaguing scientific communication span from the originators and communicators of the science to the public, who serve as an eager audience. I personally found there to be no solution that fixes every aspect of scientific communication, but increasing ethical responsibility among scientific communicators appears to be a point of consensus among the sources I examined. Medical doctors, political scientists, journalists, and statisticians all have their own advice concerning specific facets of scientific communication, but accountability echoes throughout all the research. Ultimately the inquiry shows that the usefulness of scientific communication depends upon each person within the communication process doing their job to be diligent, honest, and keeping the common good of society in mind as they fulfill their responsibilities.