Science Communication, and Being Persuasive

Originally posted on April 27th, 2020 on Facebook

This post doesn’t have much science in it, it’s about why I started posting about the virus, and something about my philosophy on communication. If you’re not interested in that, feel free to skip it.

Much of the reason stems from how scientific information is often communicated to the public. So often a scientist or public official shows up on a news show, and basically gives a conclusion, but no real data. Instead of giving a persuasive case, they just make a claim without much support. Because of this, many in the public have been confused or lost trust in what they learn from the media.

On March 9th, I started posting to Facebook, since I don’t yet have a blog. If you’ve been one of my Facebook friends for a long time, you know that I rarely post, really only to change my profile picture for Talk Like a Pirate Day! I felt it was important to give some data in a digestible way, so people would have some understanding of what was going on. I just wanted to show some data so people could understand why SARS-2 was not like the typical flu.

I started out by giving my credentials, since many of you, especially my high school friends, may not have even known I was a scientist. And yes, it might have helped me get my foot in the door with some of you. However, one of the things I don’t like about our public discourse, is how many scientists expect that their credentials means that they must be believed by the public. Being an expert isn’t enough to automatically be believed. You still have to show your data and show why it supports your conclusion. Anyone who has been to a scientific conference or even a journal club knows that experts often disagree. You can’t just say “I have a PhD” to a room full of PhDs. So when experts try to make a case to the public, they still need to show data, and how they came to their conclusion. Unfortunately, because they often just have 60 seconds on a news show, they don’t have time for that. What too often happens, is that they just make a claim without support, and say that if you don’t believe them, you’re just a <news anchor, YouTuber, insurance salesman> or you’re just anti-science or racist or whatever. This is just lazy, and ironically, is anti-science. Scientists must make observations, show data, and be persuasive. Taking short cuts like name-calling isn’t persuasive, and it just makes your opponent irritated and unwilling to listen. In fact, if your opponent knows how to argue, you’ve just clearly told them that you can’t make your case. You lose.

Here’s what I do: I show a piece of data, then say what it means. I’m prepared to tell you where the data come from, and how I manipulated it if I did. If I quote a source, I give a reference. This shows I have reliable information, and also relieves me of some of the burden, since I’m just reporting what someone else said. I also think graphs are much easier to digest than tables, and tables are much easier than numbers in a paragraph, so I make content visual when I can.

If a news story makes a scientific claim, I try to find the original source, since journalists often oversimplify, misunderstand, or misrepresent scientific information. Politics and science make a terrible combination. As soon as a scientific issue gets politicized, it becomes difficult for scientists to figure out the truth, and nearly impossible for the public to. If you want to understand a scientific issue that has become political, you’ll have to read widely on all sides of the argument. Most people just don’t have time for that.

Here are a few of my rules for being persuasive. If you’re one of my lunch buddies from Quest, you know I did this well sometimes, and also failed sometimes!

  1. If you can’t support a claim, don’t talk until you can. Go study and come back.
  2. If you do speak, don’t just lean on your credentials or criticize someone else for not having any. You both need to be persuasive. And if you have data and can support your claim, you don’t need a degree, although training certainly helps to develop these skills. I am a molecular biologist, specializing in medical testing. I am not an epidemiologist or a physician*.
  3. If someone asks you to support your claim, and you find that you can’t, you may need to change your position!
  4. Ask clarifying questions. This may give you time to think, and also helps you learn their position. It’s OK to have an entire discussion in which you only learn their position.
  5. Don’t accept the burden of proof. When someone makes a claim, many will just offer an opposing claim. When you do that, you’re accepting the burden of proof! Don’t do that! Just ask them where they heard it, or why they believe it. A lot of people can’t tell you either of these things.
  6. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know. Making something up undermines your credibility! You may lose a discussion in the short term, but you’ll build trust.
  7. Don’t hide important information. This of course is a favorite trick of media and politicians. It’s a handy way to deceive your audience without technically lying. However, if you’re caught doing this, you completely undermine your credibility. Plus, you can’t really hide the opposing facts, you just bury them alive. They’ll eventually come out like a zombie and eat your brain.
  8. Your job is not to “win”, it’s to be persuasive. Jerks aren’t persuasive. Play the long game! It’s OK to lose a discussion if you can earn another discussion by being respectful.
  9. Find common ground and build from there. If you can show your opponent that you’re on the same team, you have a head start.
  10. If you find that someone is more interested in being insulting than seeking truth, it’s OK to disengage. Some also give you a burden of proof so great, it’s impossible to meet it. They may not be seeking the truth, and there are some people that you will never convince. Relax! It’s not your job to convince everyone!
  11. Don’t post angry! Take a walk, have lunch, maybe even sleep on it, and think before you respond to something obnoxious. You will lose credibility if you say something destructive. While live conversations are always better, social media allows you to think before you post!

Don’t fear, but be smart!

*A medical license grants the legal right to order tests, interpret results, prescribe medication, and give medical advice. Also, your doctor knows your medical history, and the particular tests and medication you’ve taken. So always consult with your doctor when making medical decisions!

Update: October 26th, 2021
This past few years have become incredibly contentious and polarized in the US on many important topics of public life. So many times, the default response to disagreement has become to break off discussion and even relationships. This is a tragedy. In addition to above points, I’m adding a new one:

12. When discussing a controversial topic with someone with whom you disagree, do your best to at least understand why your opponent would hold the opinion they do, rather than just assuming they are crazy or evil. This has 2 functions, it allows you to consider points that you may have not considered before, and it also allows you to better understand their view so you can know how to address it. You may still disagree, but you’ll be better equipped to address their view, and may also be able to preserve the relationship.

6 thoughts on “Science Communication, and Being Persuasive

  1. Pingback: What is Science? |

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