Science-Based Science Communications: Surprising New Findings

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

Last week Dan Kahan, Harvard professor and member of the highly important Cultural Cognition Project, released his latest research about how scientific evidence impacts opinions. It was published under dim headlines such as Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain and elicited equally defeated sounding tweets and Facebook posts from science communicators all over the globe.

Here are examples of corroborated findings, which offer insight into why many cringed to hear their worst fears confirmed:

  • People who thought Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq believed the misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research continued to think so even after they were shown an article saying that only certain federally funded stem cell work was stopped.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of President Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year—a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down, or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.
  • But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy. If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you’re more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.

Perhaps I am just wired to be an optimist, and perhaps it’s rooted in my own confirmation bias, but the thing that really jumped out at me was the very last finding, that when people reflected on a positive experience first, they became significantly more likely to accurately interpret the data in front of them. For me this is exceptionally good news, despite the broader finding that facts themselves do not easily change closely held opinions.

I’ve noticed that some in the nuclear industry find utilizing this type of social science in outreach efforts to be a forbidden form of voodoo. But I personally see no moral issue with making it a point to be positive and kind toward people in my outreach efforts, knowing that it improves the likelihood that they’ll be more open to hearing factual information about nuclear energy. In my mind it is the ultimate win-win, because I just try to be nice to people in general. It even confirms recent advice I gave after a presentation when someone asked, “What is the most effective outreach technique you’ve discovered?” and I answered, “Being nice.”

In addition, I want to point out that for very many people, viewing art is a very positive experience and that carefully designed public art at nuclear sites can act as a positive primer in learning about the technology. New public art projects would also likely be international news and excellent social media content, which could multiply that positive experience far beyond the site itself. While it may sound whimsical, it is supported by social science and would benefit the global industry.

Highly Radioactive Waste Treatment and Storage Building, Netherlands

Highly Radioactive Waste Storage Building, Netherlands

While huge declarations about better communications are always coming from leaders of the nuclear industry, we need to take the next steps and figure out how exactly we do that. According to the folks at the World Health Organization and the World Nuclear Association, as an industry our communications failures are officially more deadly than our technical failures (scroll down to the September 9 announcement When words cause more harm than radiation)—so I think the issue deserves less lip service and a lot more action.

In close, I want to challenge nuclear supporters to be kind, and to try new approaches—focus on building relationships rather than trying to convince people that nuclear is the solution, or worse, trying to prove them wrong and yourself right (more on that: How to win every argument). It’s time for the nuclear industry to take a science-based approach to communications, which means accepting that the facts alone are not enough.

screen shot


suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project.  She is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.  Read her recent experiences traveling through Europe at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist – an initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project


8 thoughts on “Science-Based Science Communications: Surprising New Findings

  1. W. Don Seaborg

    Ms. Baker,

    Commendable article, and right on target insight. We will never convince anyone to give nuclear a fair hearing if we are not willing and able to respond to the questions in as professional, patient, honest, understanding – and yes, kind – way as we can. Relationships are indeed the key. Good relationships are built on trust, trust that is willing to give another party a fair hearing.

    Defensiveness will simply not work. If our technology is as good as we believe it is, then it can stand honest and tough examination. We need not be defensive. Such attitudes only serve to build more distrust among those who observe us.

    I realize the end of the spectrum that is emotionally opposed is not going to be swayed by our “niceness”. But we should realize that we are not likely EVER to convince such people of our positions. Instead, we need to remember to answer their questions and refute their nonsense and falsehoods graciously and professionally. Never forget that the rational majority, who are willing to learn and desire to be educated if they can find a credible and knowledgeable source they can trust – is watching silently how we respond to the “fringes”. They are forming opinions about us, and making decisions about whether or not to listen to us, as they observe our behavior with our most strident critics.

  2. Suzy Baker

    Mitch- I think we need a cloud chamber in ever classroom :) Is possible to make one big enough to go inside?? Cause that would be really cool- to watch radiation go through your own body!

  3. Mitch

    One way to “educate” the public about radiation is to flip them out with the knowledge that they can’t get away from it! A street publicized Geiger list of all things radioactive from camping lanterns and signs, clocks, pottery, concrete, food and sunlight. Shouting out the ecological and health hypocrisy of greens preferring fossil over nuclear is another round of ammo. Why can’t nuclear professional organizations and industry gut up and do this??

  4. Suzy Baker

    Meredith- agree that when it comes to correcting info in the media, etc. it must be direct- but that our default mode in general outreach & education should not be defensive.

    James- I feel your frustration. Again, the fact that the death toll from communications failures is higher than from technical failures speaks volumes about the industry’s collective failure to grasp this problem. But, we have to keep chipping away & hope that industry will catch up eventually. In the US the utilities are at the root of the problem – the intrinsic conflict of interest of having all different types of generating stations + quarterly profits that overshadow long term planning has lead us to this point. I don’t know how to solve that problem, but letting them know that we don’t want energy sources that kill tens of thousands of Americans per year & contribute to climate change might be a good start. From a public health perspective it’s really an unacceptable situation.

  5. James Greenidge

    As the residents of Brattleboro VT and environs grimly found out, nuclear opposition is making its public case with FUD and hatchets not reason and olive branches. An aggressive mass media public nuclear education sponsored by and with the ready resources of the nuclear “industry” and community (nuclear-related labs, manufacturing, publishing, engineering schools etc) initiated after the PR red flag of TMI could’ve since greatly defanged antis and FUD and created a climate more forgiving of SONGS’ woes and spared the New England Yankee plants and left spanking new Shoreham in one piece. We are witnessing a repeat of this in a post-Fukushima era which has furnished anti-nukers the best FUD fodder for shutting down and discouraging development of nuclear plants as we’re witnessing today. I keep hearing these polls that a majority of Americans support nuclear, so why the heck are we fighting tooth and nail just to keep them open much less building any, especially and particularly by the private sector? The media and antis are nuclear power’s _enemy_. No sugar-coating of terms, that’s exactly how they see themselves, and it behooves the U.S. nuclear industry and community to act like it’s a war and fighting for lives and livelihood as well as the environment at least in self-interest. Nuclear has so many positive virtues even when the worst occurs that it’s just totally unreal that it’s behind the eight ball as it is. There’s still a chance for nuclear energy to recover positive public perception and trust IF aggressive nuclear educational campaigns in media and web are put in place. Examples as Tylenol and even BP with the Gulf show that a stain can be salvaged, but like them, one must have the Will and Guts to take adversity and slander by the horns and challenge fear-mongers toe-to-toe in the public arena everywhere and not repeat the fatal complacency of the post-TMI nuclear industry’s response, resulting in a 30-year nuclear ghost town boon in the U.S. Antis smell Fukushima blood in the water around every nuke and are hitting them while the iron’s red-hot, and we’re not going get off as lucky this second crisis around without standing up on our hind legs and challenging them and beating FUD down en masse this time. Nuclear blogs see it; why the hell doesn’t the nuclear energy and community’s honchos with the bucks and resources to save themselves? Unless, even worst than complacency, they’re just totally clueless.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  6. Meredith Angwin

    Great post, Suzy.

    When a pro-nuclear person refers to the plant opponents around here as a “bunch of aging hippies”…that’s not going to change anybody’s opinions in favor of nuclear energy. I have seen that kind of statement in op-eds.

    However, I always have to be careful that I am not so “kind” and “nice” that I find myself not answering obvious falsehoods. Whatever cognitive science says about the folly of going ahead and winning arguments, I think there is an equal folly in not rebutting false statements.

    People announce that nuclear power plants cause cancers, that strontium is leaking into groundwater, and other lies. It is not possible to just be nice and let that slide. Or others will believe what they just read (“Did you know that there’s strontium in our water and it is going to cause bone cancer? It says so right here!”)

    Respect the people, but combat the falsehoods.

  7. Suzy Baker

    Joris, Yes! That is an important delineation- you can talk about difficult subject matter while maintaining a kind attitude.

  8. Joris van Dorp

    Interesting stuff.

    Being nice is important in order to gain trust. But one can be nice and forceful at the same time, IMHO. For example: when I am in a nice discussion about nuclear power or climate disruption, I will often nicely point out that – for what it’s worth – I regard anti-nukery or anti-climate-scientism as a mortal threat to humanity and the fate of the planet, and in fact a direct undermining of society itself. I firmly deny that anti-nukes or anti-climate-scientists are any kind of environmentalist or humanist. On the contrary.

    Not – perhaps – a nice thing to say, but being nice doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to niceties, right? If one is convinced of the urgency of one’s informed opinion on pressing subjects, it it would arguably be confusing and inconsistent to be very nice about it.

    I guess I mean to say that some things are inherently ‘not nice’, as unfortunate as that might be in a world that seems to rely on unswervingly maintaining the illusion of ‘niceness’ even in the face of the manifest tragedy, injustice and brutal indifference that is reality.

    I’d like to finish by pointing out Dr. James Hansen’s letter to James Holdren as an example of being nice, but forceful, and which contains the following resounding (to me) recommendation:

    “It seems to me that it is time to get fed-up with those people who think they can impose their will on everybody, and all the consequences that might imply for the planet, […]”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>