A handy guide for communicating science

Just over a decade ago, when a proposal for universal administration of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was unveiled in the U.S., the plan was met with controversy, anger, and ridicule.

Headlines like “The Slut Shot,” “The Virgin Vaccine,” and “Sex vs. Death” flooded early news coverage. The risks and benefits of the cervical cancer vaccine were matters of dispute between partisan groups—often the same groups that found themselves deeply divided on other cultural issues, including climate change, nuclear power, and gun control.

The reasons why this vaccine’s significance was muddled in the minds of many, when years earlier a similar vital vaccine—for Hepatitis B—was accepted without such opposition, is likely due to the way the science was communicated, and in particular, to strategic decisions made about how to market the vaccine.

This particular issue is the focus of an entire chapter—“A Tale of Two Vaccines”—in “The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication,” which was published this summer. The peer-reviewed handbook, written for scholars and students in the field of science communication, was overseen by the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s (APPC) program in the Science of Science Communication, which launched in 2014.

The hope is that the book will help communicators manage the complications that arise when disseminating scientific information to policymakers and the public alike, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, APPC director and co-editor of the book with Dan Kahan, a law and psychology professor at Yale, and Dietram A. Scheufele, a science communication professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 47 essays written by leading experts from across the world, the six-part book covers cases in which science communicators flopped, and ways to learn from their mistakes; how human biases jumble the understanding of science; the impact of the rapidly changing media environment; and the different ways people learn about science, whether through museums or even informal outlets such as entertainment. The book also discusses the importance of having the public involved in the process of making decisions about scientific information.

“The book says, here’s what the best available scholarship tells us about how to communicate scientific findings about controversial topics in complex environments,” Jamieson says.

In the book’s introduction, written last year as the Zika virus became more apparent in the U.S., the authors asked: “Can this book tell us something important about how to prevent the polarization of Zika?” Jamieson notes. “And we argue, yes, it can. It could become polarized if it gets tied to climate change or to the abortion issue. If we know those are the ways, and we want people to prevent Zika transmission, what do we have to do?”

When science communication fails, it risks polarizing discussions of some consequential policy debates, says Jamieson.

“As a result, the voice of science isn’t being heard, and decisions are not being made in ways that would increase the likelihood that we are getting the best possible outcomes by incorporating the best possible science.”

And now, with the nation’s current hyper-partisan environment, “we’re seeing partisans with interests in exploiting science for their own partisan ends, and distorting science when the science is not consistent with those ends,” Jamieson adds.

It’s always been important to have good science communication, she says. “But it’s more important now than ever.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson