UW-Madison’s Brossard, Scheufele help create new science communication handbook

Two UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) professors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, and LSC faculty affiliate, Michael Xenos are contributors to a brand new book examining the science of science communication.

Published on June 16, 2017, The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication draws on the most recent social science to develop successful methods for communicating tricky and complex topics.

“The book is really solution-oriented. What can we do to have public debates informed by the best available science?” Scheufele says.

Dietram Schefele, Life Science Communication, UW–Madison

Dietram Scheufele, Life Science Communication, UW–Madison

Seeking to offer tools to scientists and private citizens alike, the book fleshes out how to involve the public in decisions about science.

“The scientific community often communicates about science with the American public in ways that are well-intentioned but are not really informed by what we know from data-driven social science research about what’s likely to be effective in terms of channels and modes of communication,” says Scheufele.

It also discusses ethical boundaries for decision making, a topic not often discussed among those involved in science communication. Because, Scheufele and Brossard say, many important decisions are not purely driven by science. 

“Many new technologies raise questions that don’t just have scientific answers. Think human genome editing, for instance,” Scheufele says. “Science can provide
pretty definitive answers about off-target effects and other technical risks for editing techniques like CRISPR, but science cannot tell us if we should or should not go ahead with editing the human germline (heritable edits to the genome).”

The American public, and their elected officials, have a unique relationship with science, he adds. “The U.S. is a country with deeply rooted contradictions. We rely on science to give us Google and Microsoft, the most powerful military in the world, and economic prosperity that is unparalleled, but we also have some of the lowest levels of public acceptance in basic scientific realities, if that’s evolution or climate change. ” The book offers some insight into this paradox and how to navigate it.

It also uses case studies of science communication successes and failures and offers strategies for overcoming some of the biases that affect how people consume and process scientific news. These biases, Scheufele says, are nothing new but they have been exacerbated by a rapidly shifting media landscape and the growth of selectively curated social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Dominique Brossard, Life Sciences Communication, UW–Madison

Dominique Brossard, Life Sciences Communication, UW–Madison

“We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation in how we exchange information,” Scheufele says. “Legacy media (newspapers, magazines, etc.) are declining in reach, and we all live in online information environments that technically allow us to access more information than ever before. In reality, however, Facebook and Twitter increasingly silo all of us off and expose us to information that fits our pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.”

Scheufele co-edited the book with Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dan Kahan of Yale Law School. It also features essays from Brossard and LSC faculty affiliate, Michael Xenos. Several LSC alumni also contributed including Heather Akin (soon to be an assistant professor at the University of Missouri; Nan Li, now at Texas Tech University; and Sara K. Yeo, of the University of Utah.

“Why do we believe in science as the best way of producing reliable knowledge? Because science is non-partisan, objective, and is willing to prove itself wrong,” says Scheufele. “It has for thousands of years.”