Shrimp treadmills and nerds of trust

What is outreach? Part 2

In my last post, I covered some of the immediate and small scale benefits of outreach: researchers who participate in public engagement and outreach develop better analytical and research skills while also helping to dispel myths and stereotypes about scientists.

While certainly important, these justifications are not the primary goal of outreach and public engagement. Ultimately, our goal is to “generate public interest, appreciation, and understanding of science.”

Public perceptions and the “Information Age”

Current outreach initiatives often follow the the deficit approach to science education: scientists assume that poor perceptions of, or feelings toward, science are caused by a lack of understanding; therefore an increase in scientific knowledge (also known as “content knowledge”) will remedy these poor feelings. Improving content knowledge is generally how science communicators hope to generate public interest and understanding of science.

While we know that  content knowledge is important (it is the first of three competencies in the PISA science literacy standards), it isn’t the the only answer. We’re learning that people’s views toward science are shaped by their pre-existing beliefs and experiences, and that’s something we can’t address with the deficit model. 

For the most part, public opinion on science and scientific research is strong – the majority of Americans view science as a good thing and credit scientists as being trustworthy. This is good news! But the geography of our current information landscape holds hidden dangers for science communication, and that’s bad news.

Americans trust in military, scientists relatively high; media, business leaders, elected officials low
Americans put more trust in their scientists than they do their elected officials and business leaders. Source: Pew Research Center

As we have all learned in recent years, what we see on the Internet is not always under our control. Search engine algorithms, social media networks, news “curating” – these all serve to limit and control the information you access on a daily basis. Additionally, it’s becoming increasingly easier (and even more common) to narrow our social bubble; it might seem innocuous to unfollow your kooky uncle who’s always tweeting crazy conspiracy theories, but this is a form of information isolation. When we limit our social networks to just those who already align with our own beliefs, we create feedback chambers that amplify and distort the information we consume.

The Internet also brings with it increased visibility, and with that, increased (and sometimes overzealous) scrutiny. If you follow science news, you might remember the shrimp on a treadmill controversy from 2011. Politicians, pundits, news outlets (even AARP) latched onto a study about shrimp health and put it forth as example of wasteful government spending. The reason? The principle researcher, David Scholnick, built a tiny treadmill with spare parts so he could measure shrimp fitness. Scholnick was interested in how changes in ocean conditions could impact a shrimp’s overall health, as well as its ability to fight off disease. As shrimp are very mobile animals, he thought it was “logical to study the immune response…during activity.” Scholnick’s study became a political punching bag.

When we combine all of this, we create a very dark picture for science communication. If you believe that Lizard-People secretly control the world’s governments and if your Facebook friends list is also filled with Lizard-People theorists and if you only read news that supports Lizard-People theory…you’re not likely to read, let alone accept or believe, an article that demonstrably proves that the world is actually ruled by hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who have taken the form of rodents.

Piercing the bubble

This sounds bleak, I know. How can scientists and science communicators engage the public in light of these challenges?

To begin, we can dial-back our focus on the deficit model for science literacy. Content knowledge is still important, but focusing on other competency areas (like scientific inquiry and data interpretation) is also vital. Some studies promote taking cues from public relations and focusing on a dialogue-centered approach to science outreach. Others recommend leveraging our own personal connections and relationships for science outreach, encouraging scientists to become “nerds of trust” to their family and friends. Even simple things like writing an op-ed can make a difference in how the public perceives certain issues.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of actions we can take to improve the effectiveness of outreach and public engagement, but it’s a start in the right direction. Delivering effective outreach in the future will mean abandoning our focus on the deficit model while embracing and exploring new methods and tools for engaging with the public.

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