While a grad student at Carnegie Mellon, I decided to focus my master's thesis project on this endeavor. Over the course of the year long project, I reflected on my design process in a thesis blog, including explorations on the rhetoric of scientific discourse, the psychology of denial, and the age-old challenge of making science both salient and sexy. If you'd like, you can skip ahead to the culmination of my work in its final form:
Demanufacturing Doubt: A Design Strategy for Science Communication
Communicating scientific concepts to non-scientific audiences can be difficult. Often, scientists rely solely on the strength of empirical evidence as an appeal to reason in public scientific discourse. Unfortunately, in a world where ‘truthiness’ has become an accepted part of media messaging, public understanding and attitudes do not develop solely in response to objective reasoning. From climate change to evolution, GMOs to nuclear power, the science community finds itself on the defensive as shifting perceptions of authority and the narratives that frame scientific communication undermine public understanding of science.
This project draws on social science, rhetoric, and communication design to develop and evaluate communication strategies that both compete with science denial narratives and stand on scientific evidence to make the truth more compelling than its alternative. These strategies are in turn made actionable and prototyped as a set of guidelines and exercises for scientists and those who communicate on their behalf.
I began with an in depth literature review and extensive research across fields from rhetoric to risk communication to information design. I also conducted a preliminary survey alongside an artifact review comparing several examples of scientific messaging to learn more about people's responses to different science communication strategies.
Social psychology and decision science provide a deep knowledge of how people interpret information. The concept of "cultural cognition," as developed by Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale, suggests that, more significantly than education, gender, age, or any other characteristic, people tend to assess risk and interpret scientific information based on how that information fits or threatens our cultural worldview and values. This phenomenon influences how we assess consensus and who we deem credible enough to trust.
When people deny scientific consensus or disbelieve a particular message, it’s often because that information is framed in a way that threatens our particular values and worldview. I realized that, in order to design within this context, scientists and other communicators must first understand and empathize with different worldviews. I also found that communication is most compelling and persuasive when it affirms cultural identity, is emotionally resonant, and communicated by people we perceive to share our values as credible authorities. In synthesizing these insights, I developed an initial framework that I would need to somehow evaluate and refine.
Applying the Framework
I applied this initial framework to the development of a communication prototype and solicited feedback from viewers about its effectiveness. This interactive informational piece about the benefits and risks of vaccination used metaphor to compare vaccines to seat belts, and draw comparisons to the benefits and risks therein, while providing multiple views for a viewer to adopt. As a prototype, it produced insights about the effects of the communication artifact itself as well as the design process thereof, and informed a refinement of the overarching framework.
Viewers with diverse values expressed a willingness to consider opposing views on the issue, many claiming they “never thought about it that way before.” Evaluative feedback confirmed that framing information differently for each worldview successfully appealed to those worldviews; however, I found that including several types of arguments within a single unified piece produced the greatest positive effect by affirming audiences’ values and providing non-threatening access to alternative views simultaneously.
A Design Strategy for Science Communication
Synthesizing the work to this point, I refined the framework to reflect what I believe is a human centered design approach to science communication:
Making it Actionable
With a refined communication framework in hand, the challenge became how best to share this design strategy as an actionable guide for the people most likely to use it. I decided to develop a communication design tool for science communicators. This included interviewing scientists, science students, and science communicators, as well as making the strategy itself more concrete and relatable.
Through several exercises, (including activities where I asked people to map pop culture figures and other entities to a cultural worldview grid), I designed a set of method cards that could accompany a workshop, become a reference, or be used collaboratively in the process of science communication design. I decided I needed to incorporate five types of information:
The actual content. The information about cultural cognition, values, and other principles a person would need to understand in order to use the toolkit.
The strategies. The key ideas that I have crystallized into a design process for science communicators.
Exercises. The techniques people can try, using this tool, to develop skills that make use of the information they now have.
Context. The background info, a few key studies, anything that helps flesh out the process.
Supplementals. To make exercises possible, I need to include any other materials that would be used with those exercises.
Essentially, those categories boil down to:
What do I need to know?
Why do I need to know this information?
How do I use this information?
When & where should I use use it?
Working with Carnegie Mellon’s Public Communication for Researchers, a campus group devoted to improving science communication education for graduate science students, I presented a workshop for two dozen students, researchers, and faculty to evaluate the communication framework and method cards as a practical design tool. After outlining the design strategies within the science communication framework and facilitating a handful of activities, I solicited feedback from the participants, who were asked to evaluate the framework based on its usefulness.
19 participants responded to the following questions (with answers that I categorized based on similarity):
Can you see yourself using these strategies in the future?
All 19 answered yes.
What do you find challenging about science communication?
8 said connecting to the audience & making things meaningful.
8 said being compelling without advocating.
4 said dealing with uncertainty & complexity.
What aspect of this framework do you find most useful or relevant for your practice?
9 said using metaphors to create a unified message.
8 said reflecting on my own values and my audiences’ values.
6 said everything!
Do you think you will use these cards with colleagues in the future?
14 said yes.
Thoughtfully crafted science communication can encourage understanding, discourage polarization, and defuse manufactured controversies when information is designed to affirm diverse values in a unified message. Though journalists and other science communicators can benefit from this framework, scientists themselves are uniquely positioned to speak about their work and often least comfortable doing so. As the culmination of a year long design process, this science communication framework, ideally to be taught as part of a common curriculum for graduate science students, offers a design strategy that is actionable and meaningful.
This isn't really a conclusion. It's just a beginning. Since the completion of the project, I have continued to think about how to make these ideas most useful for scientists and those who communicate on their behalf. I have been invited to reprise the workshop with PCR at Carnegie Mellon, and I am working to refine and improve both the workshop and method cards, in hopes of finding more opportunities to share this strategy with interested audiences. I see this process not as giving science communication practitioners a single perfect blueprint, but instead as providing the tools (and teaching how to use them!) that will allow them to draw their own blueprints for each challenge they face in their careers.
This continues to be an ongoing endeavor. I welcome feedback and will likely update this page as I find ways to share, refine, and improve on this process. I've recently written a two-part article expanding on the strategy itself:
Designing Science Communication, Part I
Designing Science Communication, Part II
I also presented this work in poster format, and at the midpoint of the project, I auditioned for the TEDxCMU student speaker competition with a 20 minute talk about my work up to that point. (I advanced through several rounds to be one of three finalists). Though I plan to update and extend this presentation to cover the rest of the project as it progressed into its current form, you can view the "first half of the story" here:
A similar set of slides that I've used in a few different incarnations of the workshop can be seen here: