Scientists are increasingly encouraged to communicate their work to the general public in ways that engage audiences respectfully rather than talking down to them.
One way scientists can connect with everyday citizens is to write op-ed commentaries in major newspapers like The New York Times. MSU Media and Information Studies doctoral student Perry Parks and Knight Center Research Director Bruno Takahashi have published a study examining how scientists communicate about science.
The study, in the journal Science Communication, used a rhetorical frame called speech act theory to consider how scientists commit ethically to certain communication roles as they seek to inform people about science, defend science from misinformation, excite people about science and tailor messages to
specific groups. Parks and Takahashi found that most scientist op-ed writers use research-based information to make policy arguments in their commentaries, drawing on personal experiences, anecdotes and descriptive passages that are often excluded from academic writing.
In this way, the scientist-authors assumed personal and professional vulnerability for their stories and arguments, acknowledging readers as active evaluators of both the message and messenger.
The study’s framework and findings can help explain the ethical commitments scientists make when they reach out to the public in this way, in addition to helping science communicators think more strategically and systematically about how to craft scientific messages that inform while also inviting critical reflection in readers.