Pursuing an evidence base for science communication

Richard Stephens, Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee, with a personal plea.

If you’re reading this letter it’s because you are reading The Psychologist. As the flagship magazine of the British Psychological Society, its remit may be described, borrowing from the BBC, as to inform, educate and entertain on matters pertaining to psychological science. 

The Psychologist takes its place in a canon of scientific endeavour known as ‘science communication’, or ‘sci-comms’. Sci-comms can be defined as ‘a matter of successfully transmitting information about science from scientific experts to the public’ (Kappel & Holmen, 2019). While this may be truer of The Psychologist’s sister enterprise, the online Research Digest, still The Psychologist enables psychologists to share their own area of psychological science with a wider audience of psychologists. 

Lately I have been reflecting on the psychology underlying effective sci-comms. My interest springs from my career as an academic psychologist researcher with some forays into science communication. This interest also underlies my role as Chair of the BPS committee that steers The Psychologist, known as the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee.

There’s lots of advice out there for budding sci-comms writers. For instance, I’m a big fan of Randy Olson, author of the 2011 sci-comms advice book Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in an age of style. Olsen took the drastic step of quitting a tenured academic post and becoming a film student. His aim was to harness the power of the arts to more effectively spread, far and wide, messages around reducing pollution of the oceans; for this purpose he had found a purely academic platform limiting.

Olsen advises appeals to the emotions, ‘arouse and fulfil’, use of storytelling techniques such as the ‘3-act structure’ and other methods for grabbing and holding people’s attention. Similar approaches are taught in creative writing classes and journalism courses. But little is known how they work, psychologically. The evidence base for sci-comms remains underdeveloped (Jensen & Gerber, 2020) even though psychology has a rich tapestry of theoretical approaches from which to draw. Yet, the importance of good sci-comms for promoting science literacy and dispelling the anti-science messaging that has recently been gaining traction, is clear. 

The purpose of this letter is to ask for insights from readers. What psychology underlies good sci-comms? Please share via a letter to The Psychologist, or by contacting me directly. 

Richard Stephens

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Keele University

Chair of The Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee

[email protected]

References

Jensen, E.A. & Gerber, A. (2020). Evidence-based science communication. Frontiers in Communication, 4, 78. 

Kappel. K. & Holmen, S.J. (2019). Why science communication, and does it work? Frontiers in Communication, 4, 55. 

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