Communication is essential when it comes to relaying science content to the general population. Science has performed a substantial amount of research to show how people receive information and are influenced by language as well as bias.

Studies and reports have run the gambit…

  1. People impressed by profound statements have low intelligence
  2. Hearing smart language has an influence over reading smart language
  3. Language alters perception
  4. Accents alter perception of images
  5. Plain language clears up misconceptions
  6. Confirmation Bias
  7. Ignoring facts
  8. Facts backfire

Books that discuss the importance of language and societal perception

  1. BAD SCIENCE – Sciencey sounding words influence perception of credibility
  2. Introduction to Psychology – Intelligence and language are intermixed. Language affects perception.

Needless to say how content is presented to individuals of whom you are trying to inform can easily go one way or another. People can and do believe “profound BS” if they lack the ability to detect said BS. Using scientific terminology gives credibility to individuals even if words are misused. At the same time, too much difficult/technical “verbage” can dissuade people from listening.

How does one go about relaying information without sounding pompous or threatening but at the same time maintain authority without “dumbing down” content to a level of drivel?

Choose your words and mode of delivery carefully.

Scientists often fail at the task of relaying information in an accessible way for the general population to consume. Scientists also rely heavily on the written word to discuss their research and endeavors. Written word is daunting for the general population and considered less effective than actually speaking about the desired, communicated information.

When it comes to speaking, many scientists default to the assumption that everyone in the room understands the words they are saying. They also have had the substantial practice of using demanding scientific terminology in order to communicate with others in their field. This is a hard habit to break. Yet, speaking about science is far more effective to delivering content than just having the gen pop read it.

Online videos provide an easily consumable source of science information without overwhelming the lay population with intimidating articles.

Keep your bias in check.

Our language can affect our perception of the world. Our perception of the world certainly comes out in our use of language. We often default to thinking that everyone thinks, acts, and speaks the way we do. There is also the bias of assuming no one thinks, acts, and speaks the way we do in other circumstances. Sometimes our bias strongly shows when we speak.

Harvard President Larry Summers was fired from his position as his choice of words and bias came through in a speech he delivered.

Look at the words that you use. Pay attention to how you engage with people of a different gender/race/ability/age…etc. Everyone has bias. This does not make us bad people, but it does if we allow it to go unchecked. It is a good practice of self exploration to revisit a self assessment to determine what our biases of others are. There are online tests to help find our hidden bias.

Intelligence is also linked to language use. How a person uses their words, quote choices, and ability to communicate effectively influences the perception of intelligence or lack thereof. Knowing the ability of the person/group to whom you are speaking is also useful in how you should engage. Those who often fall easily for pseudoscience are receptive to “profound platitudes”…blanket statements with no substantial meaning.

Speak with authority but in simplistic terms.

The general population needs convincing that an individual has authority in a particular topic. Credentials help in this endeavor…however, terminology is key in asserting an authoritative stance in regards to a particular topic. With that said, it is important to note that oversimplifying language gives a perception of incompetence.

The general population tends to believe pseudoscience is solid science if a few technical words are tossed in to give it a semblance of credibility. A good sign of “fake science” is to see the same technical “verbage” pop up without layperson synonyms or any other related scientific terms. A pseudoscience pusher will not have the vocabulary of an authority. They will rely heavily on the same terms without providing multiple explanations using various scientific terminology and in simplified examples.

Speaking with authority does not mean difficult vocabulary. Speaking with authority means offering multiple and accessible explanations (not opinions or perspectives) for a particular science paper/topic.

If a person can not explain a topic simply and with accessible vocabulary in several different ways, they do not understand the concept well enough.

Remove yourself as a threat to a person’s belief system.

Confirmation bias is something everyone has on some level. Taking new information that potentially conflicts with core belief systems is exceedingly painful for many people. People tend to surround themselves with those who think similarly to them. There is comfort to be found in being a part of a tribe. This tribe helps people cope with loss, pain, and offers support in times of trouble. This tribe will have similar core beliefs that unite them. While there is some positive aspects of having a group who supports you, it becomes problematic when core beliefs cause issues for other people in the world. That is a topic another article.

Focusing on the tribe mentality and core beliefs…they actively accept evidence that reinforces these core belief systems. Sometimes this “evidence” is blatantly false to people outside of the tribe. People ignore belief contradicting facts because it goes against the safety of the tribe. They see the person presenting the facts as foreign and/or a threat. It is important to remove yourself as a threat to a person and their “tribe”.

Discuss the elephant in the room, state that we are people who care about others, and that it is ok for us to not have the same beliefs. Be caring and considerate allowing the person a space to both hold onto their beliefs and hear the evidence without fear of a fight.

I want to make a note that some beliefs are oppressive and harmful…ie: Nazis, sexism, racism, etc…It is important to note that people who subscribe to such thought processes can escalate to potentially dangerous levels. Many of these individuals are irrational and/or outright evil. This type of thinking has not shown to be overcome with reason alone as we have had entire wars over it as well as civil rights movements in order to overcome such oppressive thinking. Yet this is an another article topic for another time. I am focusing on the reachable and rational people.

Know when to walk away.

Sometimes the urge to keep correcting a person becomes quite strong. After trying to remove yourself as a threat to encourage someone to even listen to you, it is counterproductive to continue to push when someone starts pushing back. Offer the evidence. Be willing to talk about it another time. Be polite and kind in interacting with a resistant person. Leave the discussion before it escalates.

A fact resistant person is more likely to talk about the evidence later if you have respected their boundaries and left the discussion without aggression.

As a science communicator, it is important to me that I am approachable to anyone including people who do not share my perspectives and/or belief systems. The only time I shut out a person is if that individual becomes toxic, overtly aggressive, harmful, rude…etc. I refuse to belittle people who think differently from me. This is counter productive to my overall goal which is offering accessible science to anyone who is willing to learn.

Ask yourself, “what is my goal of presenting information.”

Ultimately this is where your type of engagement is influenced. This question will save a lot of time especially if the receptiveness of the resistant individual is known. There may be no point at all in engagement. I refuse to actively debate science resistant people if I have the knowledge they will never listen to me, are rude/aggressive, really just want to fight, and/or want a scientist to listen to them thus giving them a semblance of credibility. There is something to be said of not engaging with such individuals and in turn removing their platform. How does engaging with such individuals affect the perception others have of you?

Are others more likely to come to you for information or are you alienating people who would have seen you as an accessible authority to answer their questions respectfully?

With the previous logic stated, I would like to point out that challenging an idea without directly challenging a person is entirely acceptable and something that I do quite frequently in particular heavy pushers of pseudoscience with large followings. IE: Deepak Chopra, PETA, and GOOP. I will pick apart bad science, poorly performed studies, fake medical treatments, as well as predatory companies peddling nonsense to vulnerable people. This practice does not harm an individual but exposes evidence in a way to educate the masses and empower the individual.

The point? Challenging the practices of a large company is not the same as challenging John Doe on YouTube with 25 subscribers looking for a fight and someone to listen to him.

Science communication is desperately needed during this time where entire countries are subjected to rampant, out of control confirmation bias. Addressing how to properly effectively communicate with resistant individuals is essential in combating the rejection of facts. Shouting matches are not going to win this war fueled by ignorance and emotion. Stay calm, clear headed…know your goals and always default to kindness. It is free.

In summary…

  1. Your chosen words matter
  2. Video is easier than text
  3. Keep your bias in check
  4. Speak simplistically but with authority
  5. Intelligence is perceived through language
  6. Know your audience
  7. Remove yourself as a threat
  8.  Know when to walk away
  9. Question your motives and goals in presenting information
  10. Choose your battles wisely not giving a platform to bad science

Thank You For Reading,

Scientist Mel


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