Identity and the structure of argument

Maria Konnikova has a terrific article in the New Yorker which should be required reading for anyone involved in science communication. It’s a quick overview of recent research into what sorts of messages ‘land’ with an audience and actually impact their thinking.

“The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked.”

Now, there’s lots to argue about, but this sort of stuff should interest us all. One of the reasons I’ve criticised science communication for thinking that the science is the hard part is precisely this: as scientists, we’ve an alarming habit of assuming that if we share the evidence everyone will reach the same conclusions we do. Nope, communication is a whole lot more subtle and complex than that.

What’s new to me here is the exploration of self-affirmation:

Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Without knowing what to call it, we adopted something rather similar in our approach with DEMO: The Movie. The evidence surrounding practical work in schools is that much of it is ineffective, but asserting that bluntly is immediately threatening, perhaps even offensive.

DEMO, therefore, sets out to remind teachers what it is that’s precious about teaching in the first place, and why teaching science is (for those who love it) one of the best jobs in the world. It’s then a small step to reinforcing the sorts of approach that tend to lead to effective demonstration use, and reminding the viewer of situations where they already think that way.

It’s a very gentle, supportive approach, and it’s not going to work for everybody in every situation. There are times when it would be plain insidious, for that matter.

But it felt right for DEMO, and the moral here is: we should be thinking much more carefully and subtly about how we present our arguments. Bludgeoning audiences with The Science is unlikely to have the intended effect.

Further, my hope – and I’ll be writing more about this soon – is that the research base surrounding science communication can provide us with a critical advantage as we wrestle with other calls on our audiences’ attention. If, that is, we can find ways of translating research into practice.

[hat tip to Ed Yong for tweeting a link to the original article]

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