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Making science heard is more than shouting numbers

Stories are what people take home. Emotions are what stick with people.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” said the American poet and civil right activists Maya Angelou.

It could translate into the science communication world by “people won’t remember the numbers from the study you quoted, but they’ll remember why you cared about a specific issue based on the emotions you made them feel with your story”.

It can be counterintuitive for scientists whose whole career relies on data and evidence, but stories and emotions are the - not so secret - tools scientists can use to convince others. This is not about manipulating people, it’s all about finding a way to connect with others and engage in a dialogue.

A respectful and meaningful conversation during which people can learn from each other to build a better future. That may sound idyllic and inefficient to drive science forward based on emotions. However next time you go to the doctor because you feel like something is wrong with you, yet the data from the lab indicate that nothing is worth worrying about, won’t you expect your doctor to listen to you and try to get to the bottom of the question?

Showing empathy is an efficient way to connect with someone, open a dialogue and start a meaningful relationship. What are the odds you’ll convince oil and gas workers to quit their job using arguments such as “you work for the devil”? Will they listen to anything else you may say after such a statement? Probably not. What about starting by acknowledging that we all have bills to pay and that the safety of the future generation is what matters to us all, and seeing what kind of discussion it leads to.

Finding common grounds, whatever they might be, can lay the foundation of an engaging dialogue, and even a scientific discussion. Ski addict? Plant lover? Caring parent? Travelling foodie? Hunting passionate? Climate warming will probably influence your lifestyle!

Kluane Lake, Yukon. Breathtaking yet sad story. It’s been drying up since the retreating Kaskawulsh Glacier’s meltwater suddenly diverted in May 2016. Memories from 2022.

Science becomes much more relatable when you realize how it impacts you rather than being told that the temperature of the ocean is rising according to a study that just got published by a famous team of internationally recognized experts working at a well-known institution. If you tell me that I won’t be able to enjoy my favourite hobby or that my children’s safety is at risk, I’m more inclined to take you seriously and keep listening to you than if you make me feel stupid by throwing at me overwhelming data.

Society and science: a love-hate relationship

Scientists are often under the impression that people don’t care about science or do not like science. And it is not uncommon to hear scientists saying they feel undervalued and that the public is not smart enough to realize their contribution. The issue may be how science is communicated and framed in our everyday life.

Even though many of my friends have shared traumatic experiences from high school related to a specific teacher, a 2018 survey revealed that 3 Canadians out of 4 were curious about science and 9 out of 10 wished to know more. What’s also worth noting is that 44 % described scientists as “elitists” and almost all of those interviewed said they wanted less jargon.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe — one of the recognized climate scientists who is a brilliant science communicator — often reminds us that when talking about climate change, we need to look further than “believers” and “deniers”. The Yale Program on climate change communication has established a list of six kinds of audiences within the American public that responds to reducing greenhouse emissions in their own distinct way: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive.

Scientific communications should therefore focus on the majority who is on the fence, and who is open to discussing with an open mind. These people might also be influenced by the overwhelming noise made by the very few, yet very loud, people spreading fake news.

This is why it is so important for scientists to be accessible and to engage with the public effectively.


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