In a social and political age characterized by both oversimplification of important issues and frequent lack of respect for expert opinion, effective communication has become the holy grail of scientific discourse. And though it has long proven an elusive goal, as Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Engineering and Public Policy Baruch Fischhoff claims, the solution might be simpler than you think.
Communicating science effectively can require an unnatural act: collaboration among experts from professional communities with different norms and practices.Baruch Fischhoff, Professor of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
In his paper, “Evaluating science communication,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Fischhoff writes that while the key to effective communication of scientific research is relatively straightforward, it requires the one thing that is often the most difficult for researchers to do.
“Communicating science effectively,” he says, “can require an unnatural act: collaboration among experts from professional communities with different norms and practices. Those experts include scientists who know the subject matter and scientists who know how people communicate. They include practitioners who know how to create trusted two-way communication channels and practitioners who know how to send and receive content through them. They also include professionals who straddle these worlds, such as public health officials managing pandemics and climate scientists defending their work.”
Fischhoff’s analysis offers an approach to facilitating this communication by combining two classic strategies for addressing complex problems: bounded rationality, typically employed by the scientists; and satisficing, typically employed by practitioners.
Bounded rationality is the process of looking for the best possible solution to a manageable subset of a problem, while deliberately ignoring some aspects of the problem. Satisficing requires looking for an adequate solution, while considering all aspects.
In other words, scientists ignore issues they can’t treat systematically, using the restraints of their specific field of study to reach strong conclusions. Practitioners generally pay attention to anything that might be relevant and are typically willing to accept imperfect solutions. When working together properly, these two methods can lead to effective communication. But what about when they don’t?
“When these two worlds fail to connect, each is the worse for it,” Fischhoff writes. “Scientists can overestimate how far their results generalize, and offer practitioners unsupported advice or summaries. Practitioners can absorb fragments of science, and exaggerate its value on their own. Scientists can unwittingly or naively let their values color their research or expositions. Practitioners can selectively pursue or accept convenient truths.”
As an example, Fischhoff uses an effort he participated in to aid decisions related to sexual assault by better communicating relevant scientific evidence, as an alternative to the universal, contradictory advice often offered to women regarding whether to resist physically when attacked. After reviewing the limited evidence on the efficacy of self-defense measures, and interviewing a diverse group of women, men, and experts on the subject, it became clear to Fischhoff and his colleagues that the answer wasn’t as simple as “yes” or “no.”
“When uncertainty is great, advice is unproven,” Fischhoff writes. “Unless those limits are acknowledged, if things go badly, then decision-makers may bear the insult of blame and regret in addition to the injury that occurred. Whatever they did, some ‘expert’ had advised otherwise.”
This is why effective scientific communication is so important—not because it can perfectly inform decision making every single time, but precisely because it can’t. When scientists and practitioners work together to communicate both the context and the limitations of scientific research, only then can the research be used to its full potential for the benefit of all.