No Silver Bullets: SciComm Insights from NAS Workshop

By Brooke Smith and COMPASS

Feb 17, 2015


Minute Read


By Brooke Smith
Published February 17, 2015
Title: No Silver Bullets: SciComm Insights from NAS Workshop
Categories: Science, Leadership
Tags: perspective, ScioSciComm, context, culture, Brooke Smith

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Interfaces of Life Science Roundtable hosted a 2-day workshop called “When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms.” The goal for this workshop was to explore and examine what we know about the interfaces between scientists and society, to better help scientists navigate those spaces and engage.  While GMOs provided a lens for the conversation, the presentations and discussions are really relevant for any scientist thinking about engagement.

This workshop reaffirmed a key concept for me: The science of science communication does not, and will never, give us a silver bullet or a clear road map for how to navigate engaging with society. And that is okay. It does give us valuable insights that can inform how we move around and through this space.

This workshop revisited and shared many of those insights. The talks were like a ‘greatest hits’ album from science-of-science-communication heavy hitters like Dietram Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, Dan Kahan, Bill Hallman, and Roger Pielke, Jr. I encourage you to watch their talks (they could be a great resource for a class or discussion group, or a primer for scientists just starting to think about engaging). For a quick taste, here are some of the key points, important reminders, debunked myths and classic science communications studies that the speakers shared and referenced:

• Overall, the public DOES have confidence in scientists (although people distrust culturally opposing groups when their status is at risk).

• Sharing what you know “more” or “louder” is not effective.

• People are cognitive misers (yup, all people, even scientists), or as Bill Hallman rephrased it, “our brains are lazy.” It’s impossible to process all the information coming at us, so we all look for short cuts and ways to understand and reason efficiently. This affects how people form opinions related to scientific issues.

• Framing exists – people connect information to context or values they know, see or care about (hat tip to Kahneman and Tversky, their work is foundational in the field). You may not agree with the frames, but you need to respect them. There’s no such thing as unframed information. And it is extremely difficult to un-frame something once it has been framed.

• People tend to find arguments that support their prior beliefs, and discount those that don’t (this is called motivated reasoning).

• The ethical, legal and social issues (the “ELSI”) are just as important as the science. Don’t ignore them because you only focus on the science.

• Being uninformed doesn’t stand in the way of people having an opinion (Bill Hallman shared that 50% of people who form an opinion about GMOs do so from their ‘gut’).

• While some debates may seem polarized, the public may not be as strongly divided as you perceive it to be. For GMOs, Dan Kahan shows us there is a very vocal group on each end of the spectrum, but that significant portions of the public have not yet formed an opinion.

• Roger Pielke, Jr. reminded us that there is no such thing as a pure ‘scientist communicator.’ You can’t engage without immersing yourself in these complex issues and networks, or as he said, “you can’t swim without getting wet.” But you do have control over the kind of scientist communicator you decide to be.  Pielke has a great overview of this in a follow-up blog post.

Thanks to the National Academies for continuing to find ways to explore this interface. The more we can share these insights, and have a chance to discuss what they mean in practice, the more it will help us nurture a more productive interface between science and society.

Here’s Roger Pielke, Jr.’s talk at #NASInterface on different kinds of science communicators.  For more great talks from the workshop, check out the NASInterface YouTube channel.

Brooke Smith was Executive Director at COMPASS from 2004-2016. This post was transferred from its original location at to, August 2017.

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