It is March 2020 and the world seems to come to an abrupt halt. An invisible and elusive danger races across the world and captures the Netherlands too. We have become part of the pandemic and Dutch people are being introduced to the grim coronavirus. The flow of information is already underway and virologists and epidemiologists are being called by the newsrooms to explain this apparent downfall of society. And they deliver – the scientists are doing what they are trained to do: explaining exactly what a virus is, how infection works, what we know and, above all, how little we actually still know.
Back in the day, when I worked in science journalism, I had the same journalistic reflex. Information, interpretation, that’s what people want and also what they need. Nowadays, I am more sceptical. Because I have found over the course of my career that good communication is above all about listening. Hearing what information the other person needs to make their own decisions. Knowing that information is always, and I mean always, subjectively interpreted by the receiver. Good communication is listening to concerns to learn from them, not to want to solve them immediately.
I have found over the course of my career that good communication is above all about listening.
Where most medical experts gave public lectures through the media, only a few actually offered a listening ear. Like Diederik Gommers, who did not try to silence Instragram influencer and anti-vaccination activist Famke Louise with facts, but instead listened to her and tried to find out where her fears came from and what information she actually wanted.
Scientists are trained to gather and interpret information, and then figure out how to gain new knowledge. It is second nature to them. But that attitude has a pitfall. They often think that everyone will deal with information in the same way to draw conclusions, whereas most people draw conclusions based on their ‘system 1’, as Kahneman called it; from the ‘underbelly’.
That facts alone do not convince we also saw during the nitrogen crisis, where facts largely sided with nature. Yet they did not convince the farmers, who rightly felt unheard. Information is just one of the many ingredients that form our opinions in the cocktail shaker of our minds. With that, we can conclude that some scientists are at least partly responsible for the growing gap between science and the practically educated in society.
Some scientists are at least partly responsible for the growing gap between science and the practically educated in society.
Lack of knowledge
Scientists often assume that ‘the general public’ (which is between quotation marks because it does not exist, but that is a topic for another article) lacks knowledge and therefore does not draw the same conclusions from information as the scientist him- or herself. Supplement this void with knowledge and people will come to the same conclusions as the scientists, is the thought. This is an understandable reflex, but a major misunderstanding of how communication works. This way of science communication is called the deficit model.
We have known for decades that this way of communicating is not only based on a wrong assumption, but can also have harmful consequences. One of the many scientific afterthoughts of the pandemic claims that there is little reason to think that this deficit model inspired confidence among communities of colour in the United States to get vaccinated. This has had deadly consequences.
The danger of the deficit model is compounded by the misconception that giving knowledge to an audience will lead to changing their attitude on an issue, which in turn will lead to a change in their behaviour. We have also known for decades that this three-step doesn’t work so simply and you even encounter it in reverse in the wild: someone exhibits behaviour that she tries to condone by adopting a certain attitude, which in turn is underpinned by selective facts. There were plenty of examples of this too during the pandemic.
Talking is not communicating
Fortunately, an important part of the solution is simple: training. It is often thought that if you can talk, you can also communicate. Unfortunately, the two things are not the same. Communication is a profession and, like virology and epidemiology, a science, with theories and models and guidelines. These can be learned and will at least help avoid these kinds of communication pitfalls.
It is often thought that if you can talk, you can also communicate. Unfortunately, the two things are not the same.
Are scientists then no longer allowed to transmit anything at all? Pouring out knowledge to an ignorant public? Of course they are. Fortunately, many scientists nowadays are perfectly capable of translating their knowledge into understandable language. After all, knowledge should be available in accessible form as much as possible. To use or simply marvel at with reverence. But only if that is what your audience is asking for. And you only know what they are asking for when you listen to them.
This article was published in December 2022 on the website Beste-ID.