- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Science Communication Theories
By Yasmin Tayag / 2 minute read
To get started, let’s agree on some definitions:
- Misinformation refers to false narratives and inaccuracies that are shared as if they were the truth.
- Disinformation is a form of misinformation that is created deliberately, often with malicious intent.
- Conspiracy theories are explanations for events or situations that invoke the involvement of supposedly powerful and nefarious groups, even though realistic explanations are more probable. Such theories can be thought of as another subtype of misinformation.
There are many ways but little consensus on how to address misinformation and conspiracy theories. Some think it’s best to stick to the facts, while others believe the facts matter less than the way in which they are communicated. Here is a brief overview of some common models and the thinking behind them.
- Information-deficit theory: Here, facts take center stage. This theory assumes that people believe in misinformation because they lack factual information, and that repeating the facts can override their previously held beliefs. As the persistence of climate skepticism despite the abundance of clear information on climate change suggests, however, this model has its shortcomings. Even though the model is considered outdated among academics, much of the media still uses it, says Katya Ognyanova, an associate professor of communications at Rutgers University: “You don’t have enough information, so we’ll just pile up the info and beam it at you.”
- Cultural-cognition theory: This theory assumes that people’s perception of facts is shaped by their culture and personal values. Facts matter, but if they don’t align with a worldview, people are unlikely to accept them, let alone shift their outlook. In short, facts are necessary but insufficient for effective communication, says John Cook, of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. According to this model, people confronted with a scientific debate tend to “endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important ties” rather than base their responses solely on the facts, writes the Yale University communications scholar Dan Kahan.
- A ‘holistic’ view: This approach combines elements of the first two theories. It acknowledges both that it’s important to include facts when addressing misinformation, and that perceptions of the facts will vary depending on people’s identity and worldview. This makes it especially important to consider how the facts are delivered, and by whom. Cook has pointed out that people take in information through layers of individual bias, group identities, and emotions, which can make it challenging to reach people whose surroundings encourage resistance to science. However, people also want to hold accurate views, so it’s important to share the facts with them. It’s not as if climate-change deniers want to be misled by misinformation or hold inaccurate views; they just have a warped perception of what is true.
I prefer the holistic approach because it demands that science journalists think carefully about their audiences, and I believe empathy is essential to effective communication. Thinking about the reader’s questions, concerns, and biases is important, because those factors inform our approach to reaching them. Are they mistrustful? Confused? Overwhelmed? How can you tailor your language and communication style to best serve them? And if their beliefs stem from a lack of scientific literacy — how the science came to be, how it works, how it affects them — educating them nonjudgmentally can help them becomes less vulnerable to misinformation over time.