Monday, April 24, 2006

Materials Today column: "Five lessons in nano outreach"

Here's an excerpt of a column that just came out in Materials Today where I summarize “Five lessons for nano outreach.” The punch line: If we want to do nano outreach well, we need to develop a very fine-grained understanding of how citizens make sense of scientific information and tailor our communication strategies accordingly.

This has nothing to do with developing persuasive messages. Rather, it is about making information available to different publics in a way that allows them to overcome their specific informational deficits and that takes into account their specific habits and strategies for seeking out information about issues, such as nanotechnology.

Here’s a short excerpt. For a PDF version of the full column, click here.

"The lessons are simple. Science communication and education needs to address different audiences and abandon the idea of a “scientific citizen.” Again, this does not mean that information is not important. But we know from decades of research in political communication that information can be presented in ways that fundamentally changes the interpretation among audiences. And more importantly, citizens will always use their own perceptual lenses to interpret information, even if it is presented in the most neutral way possible, based on their pre-existing values, beliefs, thoughts, and other predispositional lenses.

As a result, understanding these results and using them for effective public communication about nanotechnology is not an option; it is a necessity. Interest groups. corporate communicators and other players in the policy arena have long used these strategies for successfully communicating with a miserly public that will often form opinions based on very limited amount of information, if we like it or not.

Just to preempt one potential criticism, my recommendation is not to engage in propagandistic attempts in order to sway opinions one way or another. On the contrary, my point is that if scientists want to have their views heard in public debate, they need to understand and use the tools that are available and appropriate for different audiences."