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By Leah Poffenberger
From February 4 to 6, the 2021 APS Annual Leadership Meeting brought together a number of prominent leaders in science to address issues facing the physics community. A session on Saturday, February 6, titled "Communicating Science to Nonscientists in Post-Election and Post-Pandemic America," gathered panelists at the forefront of science communication to discuss the growing challenge of communicating science in an increasingly polarized society.
Brian Greene photo credit: Elena Selber
Annual Leadership Meeting speakers (Left to Right): Kip Thorne, Cailin O'Connor, Alan Alda, Brian Greene, and April Burke
Nobel laureate Kip Thorne (California Institute of Technology) started the session with a brief presentation that introduced some of the barriers to communicating science to nonscientists, especially skeptics. Thorne then participated in a panel discussion, moderated by World Science Fair Co-founder Brian Greene (Columbia University). Other panelists lending their unique perspectives to communicating science were: Alan Alda, actor, writer, and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication at Stony Brook University; April Burke, congressional lobbyist for LIGO, Fermilab, and other science organizations; and Cailin O’Connor, UC Irvine philosopher of science, expert on science communication, and author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread.
According to Thorne, both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump presidency highlighted problems in America that must be addressed: widespread confusion about, mistrust of, and resistance to science. Rebuilding trust in science, in particular skeptical adults, requires the contribution of all scientists making an effort to connect with non-scientists. Thorne says that for scientists to be effective communicators, they must “eschew arrogance” and create messages about science that can inspire, while conveying how science works. For communities that are particularly resistant to the messages of scientists, Thorne emphasized the importance of connecting with people on a personal and local level, recruiting well-liked public figures who aren’t scientists to discuss an issue, and focusing on solutions, rather than fear, on topics like climate change.
To kick off the discussion portion of the session, Greene asked the panelists to reflect on how to communicate about uncertainty in science. Thorne recommended talking about the best knowledge we have, while O’Connor acknowledged that some areas, especially those that aren’t politically controversial, can benefit from discussing uncertainty in science, but in other areas, like vaccines, scientific uncertainty can be weaponized. O’Connor also discussed the impact that the internet and social media have had on the spread of misinformation.
Burke provided insight on how aspects like uncertainty in science, skepticism, and economics play roles in lobbying in Congress to support the scientific endeavor. In influencing the thinking of members of congress, she says that uncertainty can be important to discuss: that’s why scientists want funding to search for answers. For skeptical staffers or members of Congress, Burke recommends finding something everyone can both agree on, such as positive economic or technological impacts, to help further the argument for funding scientific research.
Greene then raised the question of how to train scientists in techniques that might help communicate truth in the face of misinformation. Alda, known by many for his acting career but famous in the science community for his dedication to teaching scientists to communicate at the Alan Alda Institute, suggested getting into the minds of those one is attempting to reach and speaking to the audience in their language about what concerns them. At the Alda Institute, he says they often have scientists experiment with improvisation to learn how to quickly establish connections with another person and learn what they care about. Once the connection is made, the next step is to build a message that specifically fits that audience.
The panel discussion also touched on themes such as the role of scientists in society and in a democracy, the necessity of improved science communication education in college curricula, and how to make a field like physics more relevant in people’s everyday lives. At the same time, the panel suggested that a key to communicating about physics isn’t only its everyday uses, but its potential to present the mystery and beauty of science and inspiring wonder.
The full recording of this session is available online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlhmMBVFF10.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine