November 2016

Social scientific research that underpins effective public science communication was the theme of a week-long visit by Professor Dominique Brossard to Stellenbosch University during November 2016. She visited the science communication research group at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) for a series of talks, discussions and interviews.

Professor Brossard chairs the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States (US), where her research group at the “Science, Media and The Public Lab” focuses on the impact of new media environments and public opinion dynamics about science.

One of her particular areas of expertise relates to communication challenges surrounding topics that are rooted in science, but that also have social, ethical and legal implications for society. Examples include synthetic biology, nanotechnology, nuclear energy and genetically modified (GM) crops. Her visit was therefore a valuable opportunity for representatives of Biosafety South Africa to discuss their communication and public engagement strategies with an expert in the field. An afternoon lecture at the Department of Genetics focused on key outcomes of a recent report on genetically engineered crops.

The highlight of the week was a full-day seminar on 17 November 2016, attracting 100 scientists and science communicators from around South Africa. Prof. Brossard challenged the audience to take heed of current research in the field of social psychology and its implications for public communication of science. “Communicating science involves much more than explaining facts,” she said. “Insights from social psychology and communication theory can help us to understand the processes whereby people form opinions and attitudes towards science, and this provides an evidence base for best practice in public science engagement.”

Reflecting on the trends in science communication brought about by new media channels, Prof. Brossard highlighted the growing participative nature of science by pointing out that “scientists are no longer talking to audiences; but rather engaging people who can respond, participate and reconstruct information”.

For her talk on the communication of risk, Prof. Brossard used the current debate around nuclear energy in South Africa as a backdrop. She pointed out that the safety of new technologies relates to whether the perceived risk would be accepted by the public or not. Prof. Brossard emphasised that safety is therefore not a scientific feature of a technology, but rather a social trait dependent on public perceptions.

While public understanding of science efforts are often designed to provide the public with new information about science, Prof. Brossard reminded the audience that knowledge of science is not the main predictor of public attitudes to science. Instead, media use – that is, the sources where people find information about science – plays a more important role in shaping people’s attitudes to science.

The seminar included a conversation between Prof. Brossard and Prof. Peter Weingart, SA Research Chair in Science Communication, about the benefits and risks of using social media when communicating science. Predictably, this conversation sparked lively participation from the audience.

Prof. Brossard was interviewed by radio journalist Africa Melane for Cape Talk, while a series of video interviews with her was recorded for the online course in science communication that will again be on offer at CREST towards the middle of 2017. (Email if you are interested to find out more about this course.)

Further reading (sources that Prof. Brossard referred to during the seminar on 17 November 2016)

Ansolabehere, S. & Konisky, D.M. (2009). Public Attitudes Toward Construction of New Power Plants. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(3): 566–577.

Brossard, D. (2013). New media landscapes and the science information consumer. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. National Academy of Sciences, pp. 14096–140101.

Cacciatore, M. A., Binder, A. R., Scheufele, D. A., & Shaw, B. R. (2013). Public attitudes toward biofuels: Effects of knowledge, political partisanship, and media use. Politics and the Life Sciences, 31(1-2), 36–51.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498.

Ladwig, P., Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., & Shaw, B. (2010). Materials Today, 13(5), 52–54.

Scheufele, D. A., & Nisbet, M. C. (2012). Online news and the demise of political debate. In C. T. Salmon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook (Vol. 36, pp. 45–53). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Scheufele, D. A., Hardy, B. W., Brossard, D., Waismel-Manor, I. S., & Nisbet, E. (2006). Democracy based on difference: Examining the links between structural heterogeneity, heterogeneity of discussion networks, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Communication, 56(4), 728–753.

Tetlock, P. E. (1983). Accountability and complexity of thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 74–83.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453–458.

Xenos, M. A., Becker, A. B., Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Stimulating upstream engagement: An experimental study of nanotechnology information seeking. Social Science Quarterly, 92(5), 1191–1214.

Yeo, S. K., Xenos, M., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2015). Selecting our own science: How communication contexts and individual traits shape information seeking. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658(1), 1 172–1 191.