Misconceptions in Science Communication
Part 3: The Public's POV
Scicomm is susceptible to plenty of misconceptions - just ask anyone who was fortunate enough to live through 2020 and the years since. In previous posts, we’ve talked about the myriad of misconceptions science communication faces both from science communicators themselves and from academics.
If you’d like to check those out first, go have a look. We promise we’ll still be here.
But those articles, of course, don’t sum up all the ways that people can be confused about science communication and what it really means. The public, generally speaking, is also susceptible to misconceptions about scicomm. Every time I try to explain what I do to someone in my day-to-day life, they give me a puzzled look. Even friends and family members, to whom I’ve explained the meaning of my science communication degree and job as a science communication specialist, still fall prey to assumptions about the field.
Take a look at the misconceptions listed below and see if you’ve encountered any of them in your personal experience:
1. Believing Google searches count as research.
Oh, the fury this might engender for some of us, especially those of us with social media accounts. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone argue that they “did their research” and back it up with a Facebook post full of misspellings and grammatical mistakes, I could retire early on a beach in Hawaii.
Unfortunately, this is a catch-22. One of the major goals of science communication is to make science accessible to everyone, and to do so in a way that’s easy to understand. That includes making it so that a Google search will turn up quality information.The problem arises when that accurate information gets buried by misinformation and ends up being overlooked or misinterpreted by an uninformed reader.
As scientists and science communicators, we need to consider directing more of our efforts toward educating the public on scientific issues, and on giving them the tools to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources, as well as teaching them how to fact check information they come across. We also need to be readily available, visible and approachable as someone they can turn to when they need confirmation one way or the other. This adds a lot to our already full plates, but through effective science communication, it is possible. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy!
2. Believing anyone with a platform. - (thanks to Shenell Tolson for this input)
These days, the internet is overflowing with influencers who have enormous followings. Having a platform and a significant following gives you credibility. Unfortunately, it’s now easier than ever to create a social media presence and gain traction, and marketing companies are taking advantage of that by offering sponsorships of all sorts to these Insta- and TikTok-famous individuals.
That’s all good and well, but the trouble begins when these sponsorships are in an area in which the influencer has little to no expertise. For example, a lifestyle blogger pushing a health-related supplement or a fashion blogger touting the benefits of an extreme diet or cleanse. Even worse is when an individual with a large following unknowingly falls for misinformation and spreads it - millions may end up believing the false information, with dangerous consequences. Unfortunately, because their followers trust the source, they are more likely to dismiss credible sources who challenge the info.
3. Viewing science communicators as automatic experts in every science-related field/discipline.
Yes, science communication professionals often have a background in science, but that doesn’t mean we can offer expert advice in areas unrelated to our field.
I have a degree in biology with a concentration in neuroscience. Family members sometimes turn to me to explain, or “translate,” medical advice they receive from their physicians in a way that they find easier to grasp. But when these same family members give me a list of their symptoms and ask me what’s wrong with them - I am completely unqualified to respond! I have been asked random, in-depth questions about fields I have no experience in because, as my questioners put it, “you do science stuff, right?”
All science is not the same, and I believe we need to do a better job of differentiating it in the public eye. The acronym STEM may cover all science, technology, engineering and math-related disciplines, but to the public, STEM often just means “science,” a word painted in broad strokes. We need to be more proactive in showcasing the various beautiful, interconnected disciplines that exist within STEM, and also be transparent about our own limits when it comes to sharing and doing “science.”
Have you experienced any of the misconceptions mentioned, or do you know of any others not listed here? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments section below!