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Science communication
Dylan Moriarty

A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests the way science information is framed affects a person’s attitude toward it and willingness to seek out more information.

According to Dietram Scheufele, the John E. Ross professor of life sciences communications at UW-Madison, the public is at a point where it is receiving more information about science and new technology than ever before.

“I think that we’ve seen in the last 10 years a philosophical change toward what some have called public engagement with science,” Scheufele said.

Scheufele, along with fellow UW-Madison professor of life sciences communications Dominique Brossard, recently concluded a study on how nanotechnology is framed or how the technology is presented to the public affects a person’s attitude toward nanotechnology.

Participants were placed into four groups, each receiving a different description of nanotechnology. The control group was only told nanotechnology is of a very small scale. The second group was given a description of nanotechnology’s size and its applications. The third group was told about nanotechnology’s size and its potential benefits and risks. The fourth group was provided with information about three dimensions: nanotechnology’s size, applications and potential risks and benefits.

Scheufele found the attitudes about nanotechnology in the group given the most comprehensive set of information were the lowest overall. But, more importantly, this group showed the greatest desire to seek out more information about nanotechnology.

“That’s where the catch-22 comes in,” Scheufele said about the findings. “By explaining the pros and cons, you get them to seek more information, but you also push their attitudes down the runway. So, in other words, they react a little more cautiously in how supportive they are because they want to learn more.”

The findings have implications for communication, especially the communication of science and new technology.

According to Scheufele, communicators need to take away two points from this study. One is communicators need to be careful with the descriptions used in explanations of science and technology. They need to figure out what descriptions will get the most information across and get people interested enough to seek out more information.

However, Scheufele sees this as a “double-edged sword.”

“The same kind of description that gets people interested, [that] makes them want to seek more information, is also the stuff that potentially undermines their initial attitudes,” he said.

The second take-away is communicators need to be careful of the way they frame science and new technology. The challenge, according to Scheufele, is developing frames that do not immediately create negative mental connections.

One example of negative mental connections is the term “Frankenfood,” which has been used to describe genetically modified crops. This term immediately created a negative association in the mind of the reader, completely undermining the potentially positive advances in genetically modified crops.

“That’s no longer going away, we will always have Frankenfood,” Scheufele said. “We messed that one up.”

“The types of descriptions we use, the types of terminology that we use, the types of explanations that we provide—I think this is what [the study] was all about—really makes a huge difference whether we like it or not,” he added.

While this study was specifically about the public’s response to descriptions of nanotechnology, its findings can be applied to all communication of science and new technology.

Science communication is currently experiencing a shift to a public engagement model of communication, but with that comes many challenges. As Scheufele’s study has shown, the way the information is presented and the frames used impacts the public’s attitude toward the technology.

This shift to more public engagement, in the opinion of Scheufele and many others in academia, means a shift to a two-way-street model of information dissemination. A two-way-street model recognizes communication not only travels from the scientists to the public, but also from the public to the scientist.

According to Scheufele, the tricky part of communicating science will be how to establish this two-way-street so the science and new technology is communicated well to an audience that does not have the time or expertise to look at the information scientifically, whether it be the public or policy makers.

“Policy makers, in many ways, have the same challenges that the public has, meaning they have lots of constraints on their time, they make a lot of choices without knowing everything,” Scheufele said.