Communicating in the Post-truth Era: Building Trust
While we don’t truly live in a “post-truth era” in which facts don’t matter, research in the science of science communication does show that facts alone aren’t enough. In the previous blog post, I discussed how cultural and group identity influence how people perceive scientific information. In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of building trust.
Be respectful Trust is often the unrecognized missing ingredient in effective science communication, and unfortunately, according to Susan Fiske, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, scientists might have to work particularly hard at earning it. Fiske’s work has shown that trust is based on perceptions of competence and warmth. Although people generally view scientists as competent, they don’t view scientists as particularly warm. But warmth matters. People who are perceived as warm also are perceived as being motivated to tell the truth. Good communication requires not only respect and competence, but warmth and trust. Scientists and other people considered ‘high status’ in society, such as lawyers and corporate leaders, often engender feelings of envy in others, Fiske told me. “Envy is a very volatile emotion,” she said. “It means you have things that I would like to have and I want to take them from you.” She cited the recent bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy in which author J.D. Vance writes about his poverty-stricken family and the culture that perpetuated their misfortune. “Remember when [Vance] says ‘we resented the doctors and lawyers because they talked down to us?’ The resentment of feeling patronized is important.” Respect for your audience is key, she emphasized. “You can respect people without talking down to them. If you talk about your research in plain English, your colleagues will appreciate it and laypeople will appreciate it.” Share your passion In our COMPASS trainings, we encourage scientists to build trust by being personal. Share a personal story or anecdote about why you do what you do and why you care. Show your human side to make a connection. Fiske agreed, “I think being personal by saying ‘I got into this because I was a science geek in middle school and liked to make stuff blow up’ or whatever story you have” helps, she said. Katherine Hayhoe shared her discovery of this crucial communication skill in a recent interview with the conservation news service Mongabay. Hayhoe is Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and an evangelical Christian who has made communicating with lay audiences a central part of her work. She told Mongabay about how she used to focus exclusively on the science when speaking with non-scientific audiences. But at the end of her talks people would approach her with questions that had nothing to do with the science. Questions such as ‘why should I agree with you when you’re just one of those liberal, atheist, tree-hugging scientist environmentalists?’ “I realized that the way we as scientists have been taught to communicate is facts, facts, facts, data, data, data,” she said. “But when we talk with other people, it’s not so much what’s in our head but what’s in our heart…Why on earth should I expect them to care about [climate change], if I wasn’t willing to share why I care about it?” Now, she firsts makes that connection to audiences with her heart by sharing why she works on climate change. Only after making that connection does she share the facts in her head. As an evangelical Christian and a climate scientist, Hayhoe might have a unique ability to connect with certain audiences. But her lessons about being personal and speaking from the heart apply to everyone, even when it may be challenging to do so. It was challenging for Hayhoe at first as well. When she started talking about her faith “it felt pretty uncomfortable as a scientist,” she said. “It felt almost like pulling your pants down in public, metaphorically speaking. But people responded.” Find the courage to share your passion with your audiences. Learn something about what they and their cultural group care about to make a connection and find some common ground. “I think environmental scientists could frame their work as being about taking care of the planet, taking care of the people on the planet,” Fiske told me. Get creative Scientists are getting increasingly creative about how they reach a broad audience. Kimberly Nicholas, an Associate Professor of Sustainability at Lund University, has written pieces for Scientific American (and COMPASS) that include not only her science, but her own struggles with pursuing a sustainable lifestyle. And when all else fails? Try taking a selfie! Science communicator and researcher Paige Brown Jarreau at Louisiana State University is studying whether scientists’ selfies posted on the social media platform Instagram can help increase feelings of warmth among young adults. Her research is underway now and so the impact remains unknown. But perhaps someday a future scientist will reveal that her scientific passion was ignited by a crazy photo of her totally awesome mentor on Instagram, and not what she learned in a book.
Image by Lars Ploughman, CC-BY-SA 2.0