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technologies. If I had asked more careful questions of my host, I would have been better prepared to address the core needs of this audience.
Not all communication is formal. Often, it is the casual conversations, those chance encounters that stimulate excitement for science and create lasting impact. As a graduate student, I was on a research trip in Florida and encountered a long wait for a table for dinner. Rather than staring blindly at my phone, I struck up a conver- sation with a mother and daughter nearby. When asked why I was in Florida, I excitedly explained that I was studying fish ears. Of course, this led to the usual ques- tion, “fish have ears?” Rather than giving a long, technical explanation of the physics of underwater sound and why fish don’t need external ears, I instead reached in my purse and pulled out a small tube containing a pair of otoliths, fish ear stones. The little girl was so excited that I gave her those otoliths. I have always hoped that our brief meeting sparked a lifelong interest in science.
You don’t need fish otoliths to spark up a conversation and potentially create change. I have had several engaging (and noisy!) conversations with bartenders at nightclubs when I take out my earplugs to place my order. On seeing the earplugs in my hand, the bartender will often remark about the noise levels, inviting a conversation. This is my chance. Thirty seconds to explain that noise levels in those clubs can cause permanent hearing damage and inexpensive earplugs are a great tool. Next time you are on a plane or at a live music event, take the time to talk to people around you. Shared experience is a great founda- tion for a brief science conversation. Are you an introvert who tends to avoid conversations with strangers? Talk to friends and family instead and empower them to help share your science. Post about your work on social media or start a blog. Or practice “playing extrovert.” See Where to Find Training for resources on how to grow your com- munication skills.
Finally, we can build on shared experiences to encourage critical behavioral changes. During the pandemic, many scientists have become on-demand sources of informa- tion for our family and friends. We have been bombarded for explanations about RNA and questions on mask effec- tiveness, topics for which we may feel ill-prepared. These communication opportunities matter. Research shows that people are more likely to listen to and act on vaccine
information from trusted sources like friends and family (Kirzinger et al., 2021). Although an expert on binaural hearing isn’t a virologist, we are trained scientists with the expertise to read complex information, discriminate facts from misinformation, and help our loved ones understand the changing nature of scientific evidence during this trying time.
How Not to Communicate
By this point, you hopefully have a sense of the diver- sity of communication situations, and I suspect you intuitively know that you would explain your science differently to a sixth-grade science class versus a Con- gressional committee. Still, there are some common science communication misconceptions that hinder effective communication regardless of the audience.
When I lead science communication trainings, I often hear the statement, “I want to learn to dumb down my talks.” The idea that we need to “dumb it down” creates an artifi-
cial barrier between us and our audience by setting us on a pedestal. Just because someone doesn’t know the jargon of your specific field, that doesn’t mean they are unintelligent. Think about another specialized field, like patent law or cybersecurity. I suspect that most ASA members would have trouble following the specialized jargon in these fields, and I think we consider ourselves to be a generally intel- ligent group. In your communication activities, I urge you to use accessible language, words and phrases that enhance communication to create a shared meaning.
Another common misconception is that science com- munication exists to increase public science literacy, specifically knowledge of science facts. This concept, called the deficit model, posits that nontechnical publics have a deficit in scientific knowledge and that the pri- mary goal of science communication is to fill the deficit (Miller, 1983; Seethaler et al., 2019). The deficit model is intuitive for many scientists who consider themselves rationale and objective thinkers (Simis et al., 2016). If people only understood more scientific information, they would appreciate science and follow scientific recommen- dations, right? Not exactly.
A fascinating study showcases the importance of scien- tific interest rather than factual knowledge (Kahan et al., 2017). In the United States, there is a sharp political divide in the acceptance of human-caused climate change.
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