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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.