How Can Scientists Better Communicate with Non-Science Audiences

Experts are the people who know the information – and they try to convey that to the people who need it.

Often, it doesn’t work out.

That’s where Wändi Bruine de Bruin of the Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom comes in. As a professor of behavioral decision-making, she researches how people process information and whether experts can adequately reach them.

“In many cases, when experts develop information, they think people need facts and figures and numbers,” she said. “They need to realize that people need something simpler.”

Consider the case of climate change and its related issues.

The term “100-year flood” is a flood that has a 1% chance of happening in any given year. When non-experts hear the term, they often think of a flood that happens once every 100 years.

If the experts just flip their script, they might better reach their audience.

“Experts tend to use terminology not familiar to audience – and so the interpretation from the audience might be different,” she said. Journalists often follow suit.

There are other terms in the fields of environmental science, such as “global warming” versus “climate change.” They generally mean the same thing to scientists. But to non-expert audiences, global warming can often sound good – just think of all those people who live in cold climates.

“In the U.K., people want it to get warmer,” she said, “But people in the U.K. are concerned about flooding and rain.”

This also comes into play in medical science and the information that is given to patients. Patient consent forms, for example, are long and dense – and less likely to lead to patient understanding.

This program is funded by Fondation Ipsen and under the aegis of the Fondation de France. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin
Director, Centre for Decision Research, Leeds University Business School
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