By: Carl K Winter, Ph.D.
Vice Chair and Extension Food Toxicologist, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California, Davis
2012 Borlaug CAST Communications Award Winner
Successful public communication of complicated and contentious scientific issues such as GMOs or pesticide residues in food requires a lot of hard work. While the science of risk communication continues to evolve and best risk communication practices have been identified, development of effective science-based messages pitched at the appropriate level for public consumption is still a daunting task for most scientists.
Scientists may be further frustrated when their carefully constructed public messages fall on deaf ears. In many cases, the intended audience may simply not be receptive to the messenger, regardless of the message, due to preconceived biases relating to the affiliation and/or point of view of the messenger. Academic scientists, for example, may be perceived to suffer from the “ivory tower” syndrome and may be considered overly biased based upon their sources of research funding. Industry scientists may be perceived as being primarily profit motivated and less interested in contributing to the public good. Government scientists are often characterized as bureaucrats more interested in process than public input. How can scientists overcome such biases to contribute their points of view in a public discussion?
Let’s consider an analogy from the field of chemistry. If a chemist wishes to conduct a specific chemical reaction, he/she needs to assemble all of the appropriate reagents, solvents, substrates, etc., in the proper vessel under the appropriate conditions (i.e., pH, temperature, pressure). Simply getting everything together in the proper place may not be sufficient to cause the reaction to begin, however. One must provide a nudge, in the form of applying additional energy, before the reaction can proceed. In chemistry, this is called the “energy of activation.”
|(photo from: americanscientist.org)|
If you are a scientist wishing to overcome this activation energy barrier, a great way to do this is to humanize yourself. Scientists are often trained to “let the science do the talking” (translated: “it’s OK to be boring”), so anything you can do to break down this stereotype might increase your audience’s receptivity to your message. Personalize your experiences and tell stories about yourself. Demonstrate your passion for your chosen profession and explain your motivations for doing what you are doing. Illustrate to the audience that you, too, are a member of the community and may have common experiences with many in the audience such as raising a family, belonging to community organizations, or having specific hobbies.
With respect to the topic being discussed, be comfortable sharing your own attitudes and personal behaviors (i.e., Do you seek out organic foods? Are you worried about eating GMOs? Do you feed conventional produce to your family members?). Making such efforts to humanize yourself may not change how the audience ultimately responds to your messages, but it may increase the likelihood that the audience will hear you out or wish to engage with you further down the road.