The art of helpful communication

Judith Curry published recently a short summary of a paper she admired, on scientific communication, and mentioned a longer version of it, which I went to, and found it equally useful. So here is my summary of the longer paper. It is important to me, because I try to follow the advice it contains. So much of what I read is biased in this way or that, and I fin I have to wade through the exaggeration to get to the point. And I don’t want to make the same mistakes in my own writing. Though the original paper is about ‘evidence’ communication, I think its general position applies to all communication. Anyway, see what you think.

Let’s start here with a direct quotation from the  paper.

 Researchers are often taught how to be persuasive, with advice such as: tell a good story, be clear and unambiguous, aim for only one take-home message. It’s good advice… if persuasion is indeed the aim. But these techniques come almost entirely from marketing and rhetoric, and should be applied directly to science only with care. Science is not a product to be sold. Scientific findings change constantly. They come with considerable uncertainties. Decisions based on them — taken, for example, by policy-makers or patients — are often subtle and multi-faceted and not easily boiled down to simple, sellable answers. They often have knotty implications: economic, environmental, health and social; and incorporate personal or subjective values and difficult trade-offs (such as weighing up economic costs against health benefits, quality of life over risk of death, environmental costs against societal benefits). When presenting scientific findings, therefore, there is a case for a different type of communication — one that we call ‘evidence communication’.

Persuasion too often wins out, the authors say, and that is true. How do we avoid falling into that trap ourselves? You could test yourself against these ‘warnings’, they say.

  1. What are your own ethical principles?

Our real aim ought to be to display ‘trustworthiness’, because our audience is ‘acutely attuned’ to our motives and ethics, which means that we have to be acutely conscious of them too. I’m not sure that’s absolutely true in the case of this website, but I agree with the general point. A writer needs to be aware that every reader comes to one’s essay searching for meaning and truth. You have to live up to that search. Get it wrong, and you lose a reader.

  1. What is your aim here?

 Think hard here. Are you trying, for example, to inform or to persuade? One mode can merge into the other quite easily: we might want to inform in order to get readers to behave in a particular way, as has been the case with a great deal of the Covid-19 material that we see. Are you interested in getting your reader to change an attitude already held, or to acquire one based on a disinterested approach to the evidence? Or to learn about relative benefits — how much of this compared to how much of that? Be careful not to blur the lines between these aims. Be aware of your own motivation.

  1. Who is your target audience?

Do you have one at all? We usually do have one, if we think about it. I think I am writing these essays for a readership made up mostly of Australians who are interested in the world and the broader issues of our life. You need to understand your audience in order to communicate with its members. What can you take for granted? What needs remembering? An audience composed of people from a deeply disadvantaged area will not take kindly to being told that things are OK economically because national GDP is going well.

  1. What are you seeking to communicate?

 You have an obligation to present both sides of most arguments, though not necessarily to give each side equal weight. The latter is a matter for professional judgment, though you should be aware of what you are doing. A nice example is a paper about a threatened decline in insect populations, based on an online search with the keywords ‘insects’ and ‘decline’. That produced a database of 653 publications. The authors forgot to say that if they had used the keywords ‘insects’ and ‘increase’ they would have developed a database of 2345 publications. An easy mistake to make, even innocently. Some data are easy to quantify — mortality is one, for example. But ‘quality of life’ is much more difficult. And one should always make clear that uncertainty exists about many apparently obvious ‘findings’.

  1. What is the right time to communicate?

 This issue is to the fore in medical matters, like the Covid-19 pandemic. If people are to be advised to change their behaviour, when should they do so? It depends on the issue, and its own timing. But we do encounter a lot of agitated exhortation whose message is ‘Act Now!’ Very often it is not clear what the right time actually is. We often need more information in order to make a wise decision. Very often the right response from an expert is ‘I don’t know…’ But expertness is associated with confidence, so experts are reluctance to admit uncertainty, even when that is the right response. Again, consult your ethical principles. I found, as a teacher, that admitting you didn’t know something increased your trustworthiness for your students. ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you next time’ was a stock comment of my own all those years ago.

  1. What is the best way to communicate?

 Balance is key in this area. What appeals to you most — a 2 per cent death rate or a 98 per cent survival rate? Each comes with a different message. Truncated axes on a graph are familiar in the climate change area. Anything to drive the message home. Don’t do it! Steer clear of vague words that seem to carry weight, like ‘significant’, ‘highly unexpected’, ‘unlikely’, and others like them. If there is a number use it, and say what it means, or what you think it should mean.

  1. Do you know what the outcome actually is?

 In my case I don’t know much. I have a certain readership, which increases if I write about climate change. It is pretty stable over time. In the medical field, where those who are communicating want action in the form of changed behaviour, there can be measurable results. All in all, much depends on why you are communicating.

I’ll finish with a quote from the paper, with which I agree. The authors warn that there are failures in communication, and go on to say this:

 There may also be evidence of a corresponding turn towards uncritical thinking — whether around unproven medical interventions, conspiracy theories, or poor-quality scientific pre-prints and papers. We should reflect honestly on the part played in these failures by overconfidence, dogmatism, a lack of humility about the boundaries of our knowledge, a lack of transparency about conflicts of interest and motives, the tendency to assert false dichotomies rather than recognise shades of grey, an ‘us and them’ and ‘information deficit model’ of communication, politicisation, motivated reasoning, and so on.

Good communication, of anything, is not straightforward. Every teacher learns this truth quickly. But what I gained from the paper has been a real help. I hope it helps others as well.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • BB says:

    The principles you espouse a very worthy but as you say who is your audience? There was a time when I thought discussing something rationally using facts and logic was worthy and would change those that perceive a different world what I do. I believed our society would make rational decisions using data and logic because those I know mostly do. But I have becoming convinced most humans make decisions on emotion and what their friends think. This was driven home to me by the reaction of the populous to the virus. Fear is paramount, that fear has driven decisions that will cause considerable privation in the future but for the moment mainly the state premiers are being thanked and congratulated. There is little questioning except by a few on whether the actions were wise.

    Climate change is another fear which drives the populous. For me the weather is much the same as is always been in my 70 odd years but there are those who swear adamantly the changes are obvious. Do they live in a different world to me? There are many who accused our Prime Minister directly for the fires claiming he had not done enough as regards climate change. I grew up in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Way back when I was a child there was fear of bushfires which used to give me nightmares. No guilt was heaped on to anyone for causing them but now 70 years on they were caused by Scott Morrison because he went overseas early on. I thought it was responsibility of state premiers. It would appear the argument is there are just not enough wind turbines and solar cells.

    Most of us I don’t think are interested in communication we are interested in fear and guilt so how many would be accepting of the principles above? We have abandoned our established religions I think and taken up another. That religion favours useless gestures which have no perceivable effect on what they fear. How do you communicate with someone who holds as a principal truth is subservient to all believing the same thing. Anyone for throwing a virgin into a volcano?

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don, for a much needed reminder of what the real world is all about.

    Once upon a time we could rely on getting the MSM to pick the bones out of those contentious issues such as we have at present [and always have in one form or another] but today this is the last thing we can rely upon.

    Today, politics starts from Prep 1. If only it could be like the Curry site suggests:

    “Trust is crucial. Always aiming to ‘sell the science’ doesn’t help the scientific process or the scientific community in the long run, just as it doesn’t help people (patients, the public or policymakers) to make informed decisions in the short term. That requires good evidence communication. Ironically, we hope we’ve persuaded you of that.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Here is just one typical “scientific” example that is seriously lacking in helpful communication:

    Misha Ketchell, editor of the taxpayer-funded academic website the Conversation, recently announced that site’s new policy on any reader comments that take issue with global warming theories.

    “Climate change deniers, and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation, are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet,” Ketchell declared.

    “As a publisher, giving them a voice on our site contributes to a stalled public discourse.

    “That’s why we’re implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”

    Exactly how a reader’s views on climate panic might “destroy the planet”, Ketchell did not say. Seems slightly “pseudoscientific” to me, which is a line that would get me in trouble at the Conversation.

  • MD says:


    Finding your site was a relief. I found I was not the only person in Australia who thought the ‘climate change’ thing was fishy. You were not an extremist or a ranter, and you had done lots of reading which you have summarised for us. You treat us with care and respect.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    The problem with this is that the platform must have a position if it intends to censor others. The Conversation has no right to take any such position. It has no reputation, and merely ‘represents’ the views of random academics, who have no more knowledge of ‘news’ than the hundreds of bloggers on the internet. Their ‘expertise’ is a job in a university, and we all know what that’s worth. As has been proven over and over this year, experts are mostly wrong.

    Told to me at least thirty years ago “x is an unknown quantity, and a spurt is a drip under pressure”. I have never found any reason to dispute it.

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