The fact is, facts don't work in science communication

I’ve had a few conversations lately with scientists who feel like they are hitting their heads against a brick wall when it comes to communicating science to ‘the public’ … and especially deniers.

Whether we are communicating with deniers, or just anyone besides other scientists, one of the biggest mistakes we make is to spit out information, stats and facts. Scientists love evidence. But, when it comes to communicating with non-scientists, it’s not just about the evidence — it’s about feelings and emotions.

If you’re a scientist and you just rolled your eyes at this statement, please read on. Don’t judge me now. Wait until I provide some evidence (I know … I’m going against my own advice! But scientists love evidence).

The four organs of communication

Scientists and academics are generally cerebral and all up in their heads. We are trained to be objective, logical and analytical — and that’s good for doing science. However, if we want non-scientists to listen and care about what we have to say, we need to speak to more than just logic. I’ve been reading the book ‘Don’t be Such a Scientist’ written by scientist and Hollywood writer and director Randy Olson. Olson brings a Hollywood perspective to science communication and says that to reach people, we need to move communication out of the head (with information and evidence) and into the heart (with sincerity), into the gut (with humour and intuition) and even into the lower organs (with sex appeal … or maybe just ‘appeal’ if you’re not into the sex).

Information is important, and of course there needs to be substance. I would never advocate taking out, watering down or dumbing down science. What I am advocating is dressing the meaty substance in all the juicy goodness that appeals to the heart, gut and lower organ palette. Put some gravy on it, otherwise it’s just too dry to swallow! People need to emotionally connect with evidence in order for them to listen or care. After all we are human, not Vulcan.

Olson shares an example of this with the ‘Less than One’ campaign launched in 2003, which was designed around the shocking statistic that only less than 1 percent of America’s coastal waters are protected by conservation laws. The campaign hoped to create public outrage around the lack of coastal conservation … but it didn’t. A year later, it was dead in the water. People just didn’t connect to “a piece of data”. It was too heady — too dry.

Rising above is not the answer

Science has at its core the word “no”. We falsify and reject ideas (hypotheses) in search of answers. We are sceptical and think in terms of “guilty of being wrong until proven innocent”1.

Perhaps then, naturally we are more likely to exhibit this behaviour and adopt this negating approach when communicating to non-scientists — especially if they do not agree with our views. We may be quick to rise above. We can sometimes get defensive and may tend to condescend, become arrogant, act superior and talk down to anyone who has extreme views like climate change deniers or the flat Earth societies. I know it’s hard not to … it’s extremely frustrating to converse with or listen to people who just blatantly ignore any evidence (#qanda).

We may think that some people’s ideas and viewpoints are quite frankly foolish, illogical and stupid, but rising above and belittling only creates conflict rather than solving the problem. It’s also just plain ugly, makes us look bad and is not the way to win the hearts and subsequently minds of people that may ultimately help shape our future for better or worse. A different approach is to level the conversation and communicate on an emotional ‘human’ level.

Respectful and personal face-to-face conversations have been shown to be effective at shifting people’s deeply ingrained views and attitudes. A study published in Science in 2016 found that door-to-door canvassers who had a single 10-minute conversation that involved getting people to actively take others’ perspectives decreased prejudice attitudes of transphobia2.

In this study, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla had canvassers use a technique called analogic perspective-taking, which involves getting a person to talk about a time when they themselves were negatively judged for being different. Basically, they got people to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” as the old proverb goes. Although prejudices such as transphobia are deeply ingrained and hard to lastingly change without intense intervention, this study found that a 10-minute conversation using an empathy-based approach decreased this prejudice for at least 3 months after the conversation.

Could adopting similar techniques work to communicate certain science issues to non-scientists? Imagine if we could shift climate change deniers’ views with a 10-minute conversation. It could be worth a try.

A page out of the ol’ book of advertising

Recently, I was doing a library search on science communication and behaviour change and stumbled onto the book ‘The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour’ written by consumer psychologist and brand strategist Adam Ferrier. I’ve always loved advertising so I snatched it up and read it cover to cover. It’s an excellent book for anyone interested in learning the tricks advertisers use to influence our behaviour and convince us to part with our money. But, I was struck by how relevant this book might be for science communication.

Advertising is the business of having an effect on people — and isn’t that essentially what we want to do through science communication? Whether its highlighting the benefits of vaccination, reducing our carbon footprint or just general support for the importance of scientific research and its value to society, we are essentially trying to influence people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. We want to have an effect … a positive effect.

Advertising is mostly based on the science of psychology — the science of behaviour and mind. If we look at the basic psychological principles and techniques used by advertisers to influence people, they are mainly centred around … (you guessed it!) feelings and emotions. For example, advertisers use techniques such as reframing (it’s not what you say but how you say it to make it appealing or motivating to people), collectivism (creating a movement or a social norm that people want to be part of for fear of exclusion — basically, using FOMO to make people change), and evocation (using the power of emotion and story-telling to influence people). Evocation is the main method used by advertisers3. Why? Because it works.

When an airline such as Qantas wants us to choose them next time we fly, they don’t hammer us with information to convince us:

“Fly with us because … Qantas is Australia’s largest domestic and international airline. Domestically, it operates around 5,600 flights a week serving 59 city and regional destinations … Qantas’ ergonomically designed slimline Economy seat offers customers greater comfort with features including lumbar support and adjustable headrest wings for extra head and neck support …”

Instead, Qantas very effectively uses evocation to pull at our heartstrings, particularly with its ‘Feels like home’ campaign. One of the ads in this campaign opens with a woman in Perth Australia videochatting to her elderly mother in London UK. The scene changes: a parcel arrives in the mail from the mother with a hand written letter that makes the daughter tear up, then the scene shows the mother sitting in a chair by the fireplace looking at drawings made by her grandchildren. New scene and it’s the woman’s birthday: her husband and kids brings out a cake with candles. Her mother on videochat pretends to blow out the candles with her daughter. The husband gives the woman an envelop as a birthday gift. The woman opens the envelope and pulls out Qantas plane tickets to London. “We’re coming to see you”, the daughter says with tears in her eyes to her mother on the screen. Some scenes follow of the plane and flight experience with happy, friendly Qantas staff. The ad ends with the emotional reunion of mother and daughter at the airport in London to the song lyrics “feels like home to me, feels like I’m all the way back where I belong”. (You can watch it here)

This ad gets me every time! As an expat, I know how it feels to be far away from home and the people I love. Will I choose Qantas next time I fly? Maybe, maybe not. But, by emotionally connecting with me, Qantas knows it might influence my decision because they know — decision-making isn’t logical, it’s emotional.

This is backed up by studies by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio who studied people who couldn’t feel emotion due to damage to the part of the brain that controls emotions. Although these people could very logically describe what they should do, it was very hard for them to make decisions, even simple ones like deciding what to eat. At the critical point in the decision-making process, emotions come into the mix4.

It’s just human nature

I could keep throwing more evidence at this but my point is: emotions are a huge part of human nature so we need to appeal to that emotional side of people if we want to truly connect with them, gain their trust and get them to care about what we do and what we have to say. After all, science is done by humans not machines.

Note: If you did roll your eyes at the start of this post, but kept reading … thank you! I hope I was able to sway you, at least a little bit, in seeing the importance of appealing to feelings and emotions when communicating science. If not, maybe a face-to-face chat might be more effective (?)

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

2 Broockman, D. and Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing. Science, 352, 6282: 220-224.

3 Ferrier, A. (2014). The advertising effect: how to change behaviour. Oxford University Press, Melbourne VIC.

4 Damasio, A. R. (2000). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Quill.

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