Communicating about science in a skeptical world . . . . a webinar with science writer, Michael Robin

Although I’m occasionally asked to write on a scientific topic, I am not a science writer, per se—I haven’t read or researched enough in the field to make such a claim. But last fall, Saskatchewan’s best science writer, Michael Robin (Farm Management Editor at “Western Producer”), gave a great webinar for Ag-West Bio, discussing how to communicate about “science . . . in a skeptical world.” 

For more than 25 years, Robin has read and written a great deal about science and interviewed countless scientists; yet he remains a modest person and deep thinker on how to communicate science for laypersons.

In a webinar last fall, he stressed that belief “can be stronger than facts and lasts longer.” Some fears of the past 30 years remain, such as that microwaves ovens cause cancer, drinking water is unsafe, or herbicides cause “global warming,” “tinnitus” or even “hemorrhoids.”

Robin said that good communicators aim for middle-of-the-pack sources, avoiding “ALTERNet” (on the left) and equally, “Breibart” (on the right). More fact- and reason-based AAAs,, the Cochrane Library, Genetic Literacy Project, the Mayo Clinic and Environment Canada are more reliable, agenda-free sources. He reminds us that the risks of suppressing the facts are nothing new: Aristotle wrote that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to consider a thought, without accepting it.” And remember that “listening is not believing.” And that “dumbing it down” is no goal, as it insults, offends and fails to educate the lay reader.

So what do writers and readers need, to be rational about science? Robin’s list includes these:

(1) Intelligence—we need to understand what’s under discussion. This is not only an IQ issue, but one of reading and prior education.

(2) We need valid knowledge (sources) to read, since “garbage in” means “garbage out.”

(3) We need to be willing to make the effort to think. Surprisingly, cognition is often left behind in contemporary debates around science.

(4) We need to keep open minds and to be humble enough to change our perspectives, when needed. When credible information is presented, we also need to preserve that away from manipulation by others. Robin cites the US psychologist Barbara Drescher who says people are irrational because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, arrogant or some combination of those.”

(5) There’s money in misinformation. Consider that American celebrities, Drs. Oz and Phil, earned far less in their respective fields of medicine and psychology than when they went online and on network television to “promote” their brands of health. Consider propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and political spin, on issues like renewable energy, whether to avoid GMOs and who is manipulating Western nations’ democratic elections.

Robin cited the “Dunning Kruger effect,” whose central tenet is “we don’t know enough to know what we don’t know.” And folk who think they know the most, know the least. One needs to be able to change one’s views when needed; and equally defend them, when needed.

Listening to an opponent is no easy matter, since cognitive dissonance uses the same part of the brain as pain does, so people tend to selectively reject scientific findings in support of values or perspectives they want.

In science communication, then, Robin advocates “aiming for neutrality,” but also reminds us of the “Information Deficit Model”– that there are limits on the extent to which some people will change their attitudes if presented with information that is neutral or easy to understand. The conversion or change will not be complete, because knowledge is no “silver bullet.”

Good science writing can inform the “moveable middle” of readers who need encouragement to get off the fence in challenging debates. Robin recommends these practices to do so:

(1) Talk to the third ear—talk as if you don’t know that anyone else is listening, but they are and you do.

(2) Be an active listener—be attentive, process what you hear and ask for clarification when needed. Don’t listen to others only enough to respond or fight back. Pointing out inconsistencies in others’ arguments encourages doubt, which in turn encourages deeper thinking.

(3) Combat misinformation with these factors: provide detailed but concise explanations; explain using alternate accounts, not leaving a hole open for someone else to fill in; know that the more familiar a topic may be, the more likely the opposite is true; repeat corrections, as they build belief, but do not repeat errors without correcting them; appoint a reliable communicator within your office or agency to act on social media feeds, since you have only 30 seconds (not minutes or hours) to correct misinformation, before readers accept it; and finally, use visuals and images in ways that readers can trust.

(4) Have publicists who are trustworthy and likeable to inoculate against misinformation.

(5) Encourage and support analytical thinking.

(6) Affirm an audience’s sense of self (since humiliation does not encourage a reader’s belief or learning). Allowing others to save face is crucial in debates.

(7) Use media that the audience prefers (e.g. it may be image sharing, like Instagram for millennials).

(8) Use language that is familiar to your audience  . . . and

(9) Use messages that your audience finds credible and relatable.

Robin’s reading lists are wonderful. In particular, he mentioned Carl Sagan’s 1990s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, as being as relevant today, as it was 30 years ago.

Broader strategies for building a solid network of reputable science communication are to join organizations like the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada; to build a network of colleagues (e.g. “Café Scientifique” in Saskatoon); to develop international contacts among researchers and their communicators; to avoid developing a “filter bubble” of people who agree with you; and to remember, Robin stresses, that neutrality has many facets—sometimes there may be only one credible side to an issue. But you may face much opposition from the “lunatic fringe,” so that every good communicator’s responsibility is to find and use credible and reputable sources.

Realize also, he concluded, that the frustration factor in science communication runs high—it is a process that has always been with us (consider the “Flat Earth Society,” and other conspiracy theories) and always will be.

We’re fortunate in Saskatoon to have a vibrant community of scientists, many of whom are based at the University of Saskatchewan. Equally important, we need more, thoughtful science communicators, like Michael Robin.

And now it’s your turn: When you read and/or communicate about science, which points from Michael’s lists are most pertinent?

Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback.