The science of science communication

A person walks at a demonstration with a cardboard sign attached to their backpack, reading

(Mika Baumeister/Unsplash License)

Related Topics:
Science Communication, Storyfest 2023

What is the science behind science communication? How does social media spread misinformation surrounding science? Do journalists unknowingly pollute science communication? Are you inspiring awe in your science communication efforts? 

In this podcast, Planet Forward Correspondent Katie Perkins sits down with Asheley Landrum, Ph.D., a media psychologist and associate professor of science communication in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University, to find out the answers to these questions and more. Listen in for a short deep dive into the research surrounding science communication and why we, as communicators, should be paying attention to it.

Full transcript below:

Asheley Landrum (00:00:04) I study sort of how science is communicated through the whole system of science, scientist to scientist, scientist to public science through intermediaries like journalists, museums, and other types like that.  

Katie Perkins (00:00:19) My name is Katie Perkins, Planet Forward Correspondent from Texas Tech University, and today we’re gonna dive into the science behind scientific communication. Joining me is Dr. Ashley Landrum, a media psychologist and associate professor of science communication in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University. Her research investigates how values and worldviews influence people’s selection and processing of science media. So I have with me Dr. Ashley Landrum, thank you so much for joining me today! I went through a lot of your research and I found a lot of it so interesting. And one of them I wanted to talk about was, you have an article that talks about conspiracy mentality and the denial of science. So can you tell me a little bit more about why the public tends to disagree with the science that they read in the media?  

Asheley Landrum (00:01:10) It is not that every issue of science is rejected by the public, or any one issue of science is rejected by the whole public. Different groups of people are more receptive to messages of science about different topics depending on their own worldviews, their values, and their belief systems. So for example, we might see or hear about when we’re growing up that there are people who reject the idea of human-caused global climate change because it conflicts with their deeply held political beliefs or with the beliefs of groups that they are affiliated with or things that are important or core to their identity. Conspiracy mentality is the other sort of element of that. When people are more prone to distrusting authorities or institutions, maybe they have full reason to distrust based on some things that happen in their background or things that they’ve read about.  But when you’re more open to, in some senses, distrusting authorities and institutions, it makes it a lot easier to believe that they would engage in certain types of conspiracies. So that government agencies would hush or hide or cover things up. Whereas people who are less likely to have that sort of worldview or are more trusting of authorities and institutions, they’re less likely to sort of buy into some of the conspiracy theories that exist. So there are sort of several different worldviews and beliefs that can contribute to rejecting any one specific point of science. But the public as a whole generally accepts most of what science tells us. We just tend to focus on the ones that aren’t.  

Katie Perkins (00:02:53) Do you think that journalists can play a role in changing those people that tend to reject science? Or do you think that those beliefs are so deeply held that it’s gonna be very difficult for us to talk to them in a way that will hopefully change their mind?

Asheley Landrum (00:03:06) So in my view, it’s, it’s hard to say that journalists could make it better, but they could at least not make it worse. And so, I think that regardless of your profession, right, everybody in this world has beliefs. They have a worldview. They have, you know, a system of values that influence the way that they see the world. If journalists are using their platform in a way to try to stick it to certain populations, that could only make the problem worse. So we had a study that I collaborated with Dan Kahan and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and it was out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We showed that journalists could end up sort of creating a politically polarized environment over the issue of the Zika virus simply by framing that study as an issue connected to one that is politically charged.  So we had sort of three different message groups that people were randomly assigned into. They could have just read a public health message about Zika. We had a second message that had that public health message, but then connected the issue to climate change that said something like, if you’re concerned about Zika, you should also be concerned about climate change because… And then we had a third condition that said, if you’re concerned about Zika, you should be concerned about immigration because we have people immigrating to areas of the US from areas where it is habitable for these mosquitoes. And you know, the virus is, is bloodborne, sexually transmitted, and mosquito-transmitted. So we showed that in the public health condition, regardless of your political beliefs, you generally were concerned about Zika. You believed the science that was presented. But in the condition where we presented it and tied it to climate change, we found that people who were more politically conservative were more likely to say, well, maybe I’m not that concerned about Zika. And you know, we hear that a lot. “Oh, you know, political conservatives reject science.” Well, we also made liberals reject science because then in the third condition where we had attached it to immigration, then we had people who are more on the progressive or liberal side of the political spectrum saying, “oh, well maybe Zika’s not that big of a deal and I don’t believe that it causes microcephaly.” So we could, you know, basically by tying it to an issue that’s already politically charged. We ended up polarizing that issue when it wasn’t one that was polarized before. And we refer to that as polluting the science communication environment. But when I’ve talked to journalists, I think many of the journalists that I’ve talked to think of themselves as storytellers or you know, artists or their sharing perspectives. And when I brought this up at a panel at a conference where we were talking to some science journalists and I said, to what extent are you paying attention to science com research or having it inform, you know, the way you communicate science so you can communicate more strategically right?  What we ended up finding or what those journalists told us was, well, it’s not our job to do that. And I was like, “oh, okay.” I had used that example that I just shared with you as the example when they were asking me like, “wait, I don’t understand what you’re talking about. What do you mean pay attention to science com research?” And I was like, “oh, we did this thing.” You know, one of the potential implications coming from this recognizing it’s one study, right, is that science communicators could inadvertently pollute the science communication environment by attaching something that’s not embedded with political meaning to something that is. 

Katie Perkins (00:06:36) I think that is just a really great example of why we need to, you know, look into the research that you’re doing and understand the science behind scientific communication, like you said earlier, because we play a big role in how the public perceives it and we can really be super divisive as journalists in scientific communication. 

Asheley Landrum (00:06:54) Well one of the other things that we’ve talked about before is the way science journalists are trained compared to other types of journalists, and I can’t remember the exact numbers, but one of the researchers in science com was sort of counting and published the number of actual people who are hired as science journalists and how much it’s decreased over the past decade or even longer. Instead, the people who are covering science are the ones who are covering politics or the ones that are covering other issues. And so they’re looking at science through that political lens already that can make – that can kind of complicate the issue, right? Because they’re already kind of coming at it from this political perspective. And so the norms of communicating science as a journalist may need to be different than the norms of communicating politics or the norms of communicating, you know, economics or other types of issues. And when colleagues of mine and I do presentations on, you know, tips for communicating science and more frequently we do these with scientists, but these are also true for actual professional communicators. One of our first things is to really know what your goal is. And that seems silly because people know what their goal is, but do they? You know, it’s like, scientists might say, “well my goal right, is to communicate my science”. It’s like, okay, well if your goal is to communicate your science so that members of the public understand it, then you need to strategically design that message in order to do that. Your goal might actually be to get people to think like you do – and that is a goal, but that’s a different one, from getting the public to understand it.  

Katie Perkins (00:08:36) I wanna talk a little bit more about your Flat Earth research. So you have a research article called ‘Flat Smacked Converting to Flat Earthism’. And you talk about the role that YouTube played in converting Flat Earthers. So what has your experience been in how different social media platforms contribute to how people accept science or like, digest theories that are controversial, things like that? 

Asheley Landrum (00:08:58) You know, social media platforms are communities now. Some of them have a bunch of like, are broader used, especially at the beginning. I remember in its heyday, everybody was on Facebook regardless of your age. You know, my grandmother who is 80 years old created a Facebook page. You know, so you, you have pretty diverse audiences, but as platforms age or as there are more available, then you end up having different communities on them. On YouTube, there’s a community of conspiracy theorists sharing videos about any conspiracy theory that you can think of. From there, it was either Eric Dubay or somebody around the same time who had sort of created a Flat Earth video sort of making an argument for Flat Earth. What was interesting is that almost everybody that we talked to said that they were first exposed to the Flat Earth conspiracy from watching videos on YouTube. The only exceptions were people whose family members did and then introduced them to it. So it started off on YouTube and then came off the platform to start bringing in family members and friends of those who are on YouTube. They would start by watching conspiracy videos and then they would be suggested other conspiracy videos. And when they would present these facts, and I’m using quotes, air quotes there, right, “the facts of Flat Earth” to other people, they called it getting flat smacked because you’re just smacked with all this information at once. And so that’s where the title of that came from. And if you do watch Eric Dubay’s video, it’s like 200 proof that the Earth is not a spinning ball or something like that. I think it’s been pulled off of YouTube a bunch of times. But if you watch it, you’ll see it’s just like sort of argument after argument, and they’re so fast that you don’t really have, if you’re just watching it in real-time, you don’t have time to actually critically evaluate it. You just feel like you’re being overwhelmed with information that’s like, wow, like this is, this seems really legit when it’s not at all  

Katie Perkins (00:10:45) And so, is that kind of how you see that misinformation coming in over social media platforms regarding scientific communication? It just comes at you so fast that you don’t have time?

Asheley Landrum (00:10:55) So some cases, so that was, I mean that was the case with that. I think in addition to that, and probably more frequently for other types of science communication on platforms, things through memes or articles or shared stories. It’s people who are seeing misinformation that resonates with their worldview. So again, this is a, it’s an all-person thing. The acceptance of misinformation or acting in a political way is not something that’s true only for specific populations. It’s true of all populations. And the question is, is it something that’s gonna interact with your values or beliefs in a way that’s gonna make you respond in a way that’s not consistent with the evidence from science?  

Katie Perkins (00:11:32) So do you think that there is a way to not make issues like these political or is it just in their nature that in science media the science is gonna get polluted like you said earlier by political agendas?  

Asheley Landrum (00:11:45) Right. So we can try to do what we can, we can’t control what everyone in the world says. And so, you know, political actors are gonna probably step in at some point and make things political. But we can at least try to not, you know, we can ask communication professionals who are doing this for a living to not make the problem worse. And it’s not, like I said, it’s not always predictable, it’s not always something we can stop. But there are circumstances where we know based on prior work, based on history, how something can happen. So, you know, we can do what we can, but once it’s like, once it’s really polarized like climate change, it’s very hard to come back from that without really strong messaging from a variety of different sources that tries to counteract that. And only over time, so trying to get younger generations to stop seeing climate change as a political issue and instead as a global and a human one.  

Katie Perkins (00:12:46) The last thing I have is, I was reading your most recent article about awe-inspiring scientific communication. Could you tell us just a little bit more about awe and how it affects people?  

Asheley Landrum (00:12:56) Yes. Well, so we don’t know yet, right? So this is actually really exciting work. The paper you were referring to is one that we were looking at to see if we could measure people’s experiences of awe when engaging with, and in this case, it was reading science news stories and the stories that were, like several of them were written by Ed Yong because he writes in a very awe-inspiring way. But you know, other types of stories as well to see if we can measure awe. Then the later goal will be to see – is this a style or a way of writing that might help increase openness to accepting science? But the aforementioned graduate student I told you about Alex Olshansky, his dissertation is also looking at how experiences of awe might limit people’s ability to counter-argue when being confronted with things like conspiracy theories.  

So if you are, if you are reading about a conspiracy theory or if you’re watching a video which seems to be more, more frequently the case and you have this experience of awe, is it taking more of your cognitive resources away from then being able to question what it is that you’re, that you’re watching? And it’s sort of a resource allocation question. And he has not done his analysis yet, but all of his data is collected. So it could have, it could be a double-edged sword, right? It could be a mechanism through which to get people excited and engaged with science, but it could also be a mechanism through which misinformation is spread.  

Katie Perkins (00:14:25) That was all super, super interesting and I think is really gonna interest a lot of people on Planet Forward. So yeah, just thank you so much for joining me today!

Asheley Landrum (00:14:33) Thank you for having me.

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