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Rethinking the way in which we hold public discussions on science


Last week, the European-funded RETHINK project held their final policy event titled “Connections, Conversations and Science Communication – The future of public trust in times of uncertainty”. There is no better moment to reflect on the insights of RETHINK for the practice of science communication, now that this project comes to an end after 3 years of action research. With their action research approach, this project aimed to observe or study the practice of science communication and transform practice at the same time. We engaged in a conversation with Tessa Roedema, PhD-student on the RETHINK project, about her research into science communication and the way in which we hold public discussions on science.


What was the RETHINK project about?


The RETHINK project started from on basis of two observations in the field of science communication. First, that we live in an increasingly digitalised society, where an abundance of scientific information can be generated and accessed online. Second, that it has become clearer over the last few years that science does not always provide one univocal answer to complex problems in society. This has implications for the way in which people make sense of science and how science communicators should respond. For example: Scientific facts are politicised, and people have polarised around scientific topics. Do facemasks work or not? In what situations? Are the government’s measurements appropriate or disproportionally severe? Our public discussions on science have hardened. Scientists could not always give univocal answers to these questions – and sometimes scientists even disagreed on the scientific facts itself. During the pandemic, facts, values, ethics, politics, and emotions were mixed and mingled. It left many people feel uncertain about what and who to trust, or how to implement the latest scientific discoveries and anti-pandemic measurements in their daily lives.


In the RETHINK project, we studied how people make sense of science in these uncertain times. Next, we studied how science communicators could best facilitate open and constructive public discussions on contested science. With this, we tried to help science communicators to navigate the current challenges in their field, such as how to deal with science scepticism, decreasing trust, increased sensational value of scientific news, and the rise of misinformation online. Our aim with this project was to bring a transformation in the practice of science communication.


How did you research this?


Over the course of 3 years, the RETHINK project has established the so-called “Rethinkerspaces” in 7 countries across Europe: Italy, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Serbia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In the Rethinkerspaces, we discussed several challenges relevant to the field of science communication and sought possible directions for solutions to mitigate these challenges. The Rethinkerspaces consisted of stakeholders relevant to the field of science communication theory and practice, such as policy makers, scientists, science centres and science museums, and science communication practitioners, including freelance journalists and communication advisors at research institutes.


Due to this combination of scholars and practitioners, we were able to discuss challenges and solutions on a more theoretic level and ask practitioners to experiment with new ideas in their daily work. We tried to build a bridge between the science communication theory and practice. We aimed to not only research the challenges in the current science communication landscape as neutral observers, but we tried to put our ideas and research into practice, with help of many science communicators. Vice versa, the insights from practitioners who experimented with ideas in their daily work have been very important input for follow-up meetings in the Rethinkerspaces, as well as for the research done in the RETHINK project.


And what were those insights?


We see that many people who engage in the public discussion about science, and especially scientists and politicians, try to provide people with certainty in these uncertain times. They encounter science sceptics online, or they see that people disregard scientific information. Their almost automatic response is to ‘explain the science once more’. This includes ambiguities about how people should respond to the value of scientific information, how people should act or what measurements are justified in certain situations, with providing even more scientific information and facts.


Illustration by Enith Vlooswijk

This is problematic, for it assumes that misunderstandings or disagreements about scientific facts are because ‘the other’ is ignorant or does not have the correct knowledge. A large part of my PhD research is focused on the way in which people make sense of science. People do not make sense of science by finding more scientific information about the topic. They try to find how to interpret the information, what the meaning of the information is in their daily lives. People do this with help of their personal situations, their pre-existing values and beliefs, and their social context. They watch what other people are doing and compare this to their own perspective.


We saw that citizens only rarely refer to science communication output. This is a sobering insight for science communicators. In addition, science communicators mentioned they felt a disconnect with audiences and they struggled to attune to these personal and contextual factors. For example, especially in an online setting, people are nothing more than a profile picture; they remain anonymous, and their values and worldviews often remain unknown.


We found that it is important for science communicators to develop reflective practices for that.


What exactly are reflective practitioners and why is it needed?


A reflective practitioner critically explores what assumptions they have about audiences. Next, reflective practitioners are aware of how their own perspective on science, and their values and worldviews, influence how they communicate about science to audiences. This is an important step in attuning one’s science communication practice to what citizens need to make sense of science. It can help practitioners to transform their practice and make a shift away from ‘explaining the facts once more’. It not only helps citizens to feel heard or know their concerns are legitimate, but also helps practitioners untangle why some of their outputs do not have the intended effects in audiences.


For example, we asked Rethinkerspace members to develop their own reflective practice. We asked practitioners to keep track of their experiences in a reflection diary. Many mentioned challenging situations wherein they noticed they wanted to convince Covid-19 vaccine sceptics to get vaccinated. Previously, the practitioners mentioned they would overload audiences with all the facts proving that vaccines are safe. But, by engaging in reflective practice, practitioners found that they felt to belong to the scientific community, and they wanted to defend science. This had clear implications to the way in which practitioners addressed vaccine sceptics. Sceptics felt cornered and in every interaction were confirmed in their belief that their concerns were illegitimate.


Illustration by Enith Vlooswijk

Our Rethinkerspace practitioners challenged their assumption that vaccine sceptics needed more scientific facts on the safety of vaccines. They found that vaccine sceptics are very well informed – however, they make decisions on basis of emotions and worries. Once they had this realisation, they were able to approach audiences in new ways. For example, by displaying the concerns and worries that people might have openly. Or by making transparent what different perspectives on the value of the scientific information in the different personal situations of people. By taking this as starting point of the science communication practice, many practitioners found to have very similar concerns, emotions, or values with regards to science.


Do you have tips (for the general audience and for scientists) when reading or practicing science communication?


Try not to dismiss science communication output or interactions (conversations) you have with people that have a different perspective on scientific facts directly. Try to postpone your judgement and be curious to what lies underneath people’s opinions. And reflect on how your own perspective on science influences the way in which you address others on that topic. Making explicit that different people make sense of science in different ways helps in shifting discussions on science away from debates on what scientific facts are most true, towards what that scientific information means in the daily lives of people. I can recommend this to everyone who finds themselves discussing science. Whether you are a scientist who wants to publish about their latest scientific discoveries, a science communicator who wants to convince science sceptics that climate change truly happens, or a citizen who feels overwhelmed with all the scientific information they are confronted with daily. Discussing science that departs from differing personal situations, social contexts, values, worldviews, and perspectives helps all voices feel included and legitimate.


Where can we find more about your research?


You can follow me on Twitter (@TessaRoedema) and I love to connect with you on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/tessaroedema/). My research output can be found here: https://research.vu.nl/en/persons/tessa-roedema. Research related questions can be sent to t.f.l.roedema@vu.nl.


You can also follow the RETHINK project. On our website you find resources for communicating scientists and professional science communicators (https://www.rethinkscicomm.eu).


What is your favourite beer/drink?

I love a pint of scientonics mixed with lemon and a subtle hint of public discussions in the summer.

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