Communicating science persuasively

April 23, 2013

By Susan Rosegrant

Talking about science in a way that people can understand and use is not simple. According to Arthur “Skip” Lupia, scientists fail at this so routinely that many blame their audiences for not understanding the gems they are trying to convey.

But researchers and scientists can become better and more persuasive communicators by understanding how people listen and learn. Lupia, research professor at the Institute for Social Research’s Center for Political Studies and Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, says learning better ways to communicate is particularly important if researchers are to reach listeners who may be distrustful or who may hold different beliefs.

“I’m not talking about spin,” he says. “I’m not talking about manipulation. I’m talking about staying true to the science and conveying it more effectively by understanding some things about how persuasion works.”

Lupia will speak on “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” from 2:30-3:30 on Tuesday, April 23, in Room 6050, the Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson Street. See event details. 

One of the first challenges for science communicators is to capture their audiences’ attention. To do this, Lupia says, the information conveyed must be concrete and immediate. In addition, communicators must have some sense of what their audiences care about. “I have to speak to your core values and fears,” he says. “I have to speak to aspirations that you have. And if I’m doing that, I have a shot at winning this battle.”

But in order to persuade listeners, Lupia says, researchers must also have credibility. And that can be the biggest challenge of all. “You might be credible as a scientist, but if you don’t share someone’s values, they might not believe you,” he says. “If you’re in front of people who believe that scientists are part of a conspiracy theory, you’re going to have a tough time leading.”

As a result, in order to speak persuasively about science, researchers must demonstrate both expertise and shared interests with their audiences, Lupia says. Only then will listeners be willing to consider stretching and changing the beliefs they already hold. “We can make presentations that please us. We can make presentations that affirm our values as scientists. And we can blame them if it doesn’t work. But another choice we have is to try to persuade people who are different from us, and that requires a different communicative strategy.”

Related video: “Why We Can’t Trust Our Intuitions: Communication as a Science,” a Sackler Colloquium keynote talk by Arthur Lupia

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