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Scientists Talk, But Do People Listen?

listening to scientists is important
People should trust scientists. But, why don't they? Learn more here.

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Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, people need to listen to scientists more than ever. However, recent polling data suggests many people are skeptical of science and of scientists themselves. Interestingly, the same data suggests that the more people learn about science from the media, the less trust they have in it. Further, while a vast majority of Americans believe that science is beneficial for society, only 60% think that scientists should inform policy-related decisions. One key factor that plays a role in predicting how much value the public places on scientists is how familiar they are with the scientific process and scientific research. So, how can we bridge that divide? Learn more below!

Scientists Are Truly Experts in their Domain

First, you have probably heard us mention the old adage that if you ask a scientist a question, the answer is always “it depends”. While this seems frustrating on the surface, there is a reason for this. This really useful graph explains what happens when you get a PhD in a scientific domain. First, you become broadly educated in a subject area. Then, you keep pushing to gain greater and greater expertise in a more narrow part of that subject area. After you learn all you can about that narrower piece, you determine what is still missing from our understanding. You choose one of those missing areas and write a dissertation on it. This is your contribution to science – you are now a world-class expert on that domain!

We can use my dissertation as an example. First, I majored in psychology a an undergraduate and learned about a broad range of topics within that field (e.g., developmental, cognitive, and clinical). Then, I started on my graduate coursework and my Master’s thesis. There, I took a bunch of classes in the more narrow subdiscipline of I/O Psychology. Further, my Master’s thesis required me to learn more about the domain of work-family conflict.

After that, for my dissertation, I continued learning even more about work-family conflict. I read hundreds of scientific research articles on the topic. I realized that a discussion on sexual orientation was missing from the literature. In my own study, I tested whether or not same-sex couples experience work-family conflict differently and found that they did experience an additional layer of conflict. So, I know a bit about psychology overall, a lot more about I/O, and even more about work-family conflict. Finally, I am an expert in sexual orientation and work-family conflict specifically.

Scientists are experts!
Scientists are really the best experts we’ve got!

But, Scientists Have Trouble with Translation

All of the above means that if someone asks a question like “How can employees decrease their work-family conflict?”, of course my answer is – it depends! Because of these nuances, it can be really difficult to convey scientific research in a succinct way. People are more likely to find straightforward soundbites helpful. This makes it hard for scientists to communicate complex ideas. However, just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try! It might just take more than a soundbite to get the ideas across.

More recently, well-established scientists are writing books for the popular press, such as Adam Grant and Amy Edmondson. In this format, scientists can get across their ideas in a greater amount of space. But, they are also forced to make their work less dry and more compelling to a general audience. Also, scientists have started writing newspaper columns and engaging more heavily with social media to try to get their findings out into the public sphere. All of this is good for science. But, is anyone listening?

Scientists need to boil down their findings!
It can be hard for scientists to take all of the complexities of their work and boil it down into takeaways. But, it’s key that they do!

Listen to Science!

While no scientist is an expert in everything, there is almost always an expert out there who has taken many years to study the question you’re interested in. Find them and listen to what they have to say! In our field, we have a science-practice gap as well. Part of this is due to scientists needing to learn how to communicate their findings better. However, another piece of the equation is that people are not looking to or giving credence to scientific information in their every day lives.

If you have a question – at work or in life – start by looking on Google Scholar. This is the “home” for all scientific research on the web. Look particularly for papers that are highly cited. This means that they are well-used and likely to be well-accepted within the field. Next, look for journal quality. Generally, while not always, higher quality journals hold their papers to a greater quality standard. So, even if you aren’t trained in the scientific method, you can trust articles from more highly regarded sources more readily. You can tell a journal’s quality by looking at its impact factor. The higher the impact factor, the better the journal. You can also follow well-respected scientists on social media or read their books, if they have them.

Overall, realizing a society that is better rooted in science depends on all of us. Science helps us to guide decisions in a data-driven manner. And solving problems with data is always better than solving them without it. What can you do to increase your scientific knowledge today?

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