By Dr. Emma Frances Bloomfield for EDRBlog.org
Why is the sky blue? If you have ever tried to explain the answer to this question to a first grader, you know how challenging effective science communication can be. Now consider that challenge in the context of environmental dispute resolution (EDR), in which scientific information, facts, and authority often play key roles in how stakeholders understand and respond to issues of mutual concern. What happens when a group cannot agree why the sky is blue or even that it is blue at all? Given the critical role a common understanding of science can play in these efforts, the ability to recognize the nuances of science communication and to know how to improve are vital to successful EDR.
As a rhetorician of science, I primarily study how to improve communication and understanding between technical, scientific communities and the public. The following strategies are useful tools for engaging audiences in scientific and environmental topics, opening up dialogues, and establishing mutual respect. Additional strategies for engaging in environmental communication, specifically with skeptical and apathetic stakeholders, is forthcoming in my book Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment in 2019 with Routledge’s Environment and Sustainability Series. Here, I will highlight four simple adjustments to engage audiences and communicate information efficiently: 1) treat conversations as dialogues instead of monologues; 2) think about science communication as telling a story, 3) learn about your potential audience to find common beliefs, values, and identities, and 4) eliminate jargon.
- Treat conversations as dialogues. One of the primary goals of conversation should be hearing all perspectives at the table, as well as putting forth your own. When we approach communication as a dialogue, expecting to listen as well as to speak, we express an open, welcoming, magnanimous attitude toward our audience (Johannesen, 1974). Even when we are the ones speaking, we should emphasize our willingness and openness to listen to others. This can be done by asking questions of everyone present, responding to answers instead of changing the topic or moving on, and verbalizing that your goal of the conversation is mutual understanding. We should treat conversation partners as valuable parts of the exchange, knowing that they might share new ways of thinking, information, or resources that could benefit everyone. Approaching conversations as dialogues shows we value our conversation partners, have heard their interests, and can keep them in mind as the conversations continue.
- Think about science communication as telling a story. Research in the communication discipline emphasizes the importance of stories in how people understand the world around them. As such, stories can be a powerful way to communicate important information and persuade people to accept it. This means we can emphasize dramatic and narrative elements in how we communicate scientific information, instead of limiting ourselves to technical explanations and lists of facts. Rhetorician Walter Fisher (1984) argued that we must tell stories that seem probable and likely, while also resonating with what our listeners believe to be true about the world. Those sharing scientific information in an EDR effort should therefore aim to connect it to events and subjects stakeholder groups are interested in, use example anecdotes that feature main characters, and construct a sequence of events that logically follow from one another to address the problem, obstacles, and potential resolution.
- Learn about your stakeholders. In Philosophy of Literary Form, Rhetorician Kenneth Burke wrote: “A philosopher, if he has a toothache, is more likely to be interested in dentistry than in mathematical symbolism.” Making information important and relevant to stakeholders is integral to getting your message across, which can in turn effect whether or not stakeholders participate in an EDR effort and find common ground. For example, Hart & Nisbet (2012) found that stories that linked readers to impacts of climate change in their local community were more persuasive than stories told about the global consequences of climate change. In addition to knowing general information about a stakeholder group (e.g., that they are philosophers), we must therefore seek out their priorities, values, and beliefs in relation to the specific circumstances of the dispute in order to tailor our messages to them. Oftentimes, a dispute is not between incompatible positions, but positions that have not clearly stated their goals. For example, if a stakeholders’ opposition to a resolution is based on monetary concerns, an argument that emphasizes the financial benefits is more likely to succeed than one that emphasizes the environmental benefits.
- Eliminate jargon. For experts in a field, jargon is important for communicating with precision and efficiency. Using jargon with non-experts, however, can compromise understanding and make stakeholders feel like they are not part of an open dialogue. Jeanne Fahnestock stressed the importance of eliminating jargon through the process of translation, where complicated terms such as “mandible” are replaced with terms such as “jaw.” While she warns that the synonym or translated term may not be a perfect substitute, Fahnestock (1986) emphasizes how translation can help bridge the gap between a non-expert’s ability to understand technical terms and their right to know that information in order to make decisions about them. Providing synonyms or definitions for jargon will ensure that everyone will be on the same page and is reasoning from the same terminology and ideas. For example, some climate skeptics may say that they “believe in climate change” to gain access to certain groups and conversations, when they, in fact, understand “climate change” to mean any variation in climate, instead of its scientific usage as severe, anthropogenic climate shifts due to greenhouse gases. Defining terms and using more accessible language can avoid these ambiguities and misunderstandings. If jargon cannot be avoided, be sure to pair it with a simple definition the first few times the term is used.
Burke (1969) argued that only once we find common ground do we have the basic ingredients to reach cooperation and understanding. Often enough in EDR, discovering common ground requires a shared respect for and understanding of scientific information and processes. The foundation for this is how we communicate. Although we may be experts in a certain type of science communication, our authority is only one factor among many that influence how our messages are received. Equally important are the ways our communication styles can acknowledge and reflect the values and interests of our conversation partners. Instead of asking, “Why is the sky blue?” we can ask, “What colors do you see?” and “Why is the sky’s color important to you?”
Dr. Emma Frances Bloomfield (Ph.D., University of Southern California) researches the rhetoric of science and scientific controversy, particularly around issues of climate change, human origins, and the body. She teaches classes on rhetoric and persuasion and is interested in all aspects of argumentation and pedagogy. Her recent research examines contemporary challenges to science education and strategies for climate communicators.