Ask yourself these questions before communicating science.

On the face of the earth or even floating around in the International Space Station up above, every human holds a set of values dear to them. Personal values, professional values, religious values, and as such, arise from experiences, cultures, emotions, and so on. Anthony Giddens, a social theorist, points out that the values we hold are neither an outcome of rational decisions nor are they applied methodically to the world. We talk of values because values make a big part of audiences to whom we want to communicate, and at the same time influence the communicator as well. Besides values, attitudes, habits, assumptions, beliefs, and other factors also influence both the audiences and how the communication needs to be delivered. However, when you set out to communicate science, communicating the phenomenon, facts, and stories to the audience, as they are, becomes important. As a science communicator, the first step is not to evaluate the science through your filters, which can distort the science or change the meaning itself. It’s most crucial while communicating controversial or contested issues.

Become reflexive

And you can ensure this by practising reflexivity. What is reflexivity?
Reflexivity is finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others.
Reflexivity differs from reflection. Reflection leads to insights into something or some detail that may have been missed in time. By practising reflexivity, you can learn about yourself from your experiences, work, how you relate to home and work, wider society, culture, and significant others. It also helps you challenge:
assumptions, ideological illusions, damaging social and cultural biases, inequalities, and questions personal behaviours which perhaps silence the voices of others or otherwise marginalise them.
As science communicators, we need to shed off our own prejudices or notions and understand the audience’s demographics, beliefs, values, attitudes and more. We should ask ourselves what we need to know to perform the communication better? The third-order thinking, proposed by Irwin, encourages the individual to think more about the context of the audiences. It promotes the framing of messages better and avoids the deficit or conversational mode of communication. So, how can you do this? How can you practice reflexivity before you communicate? We bring you a set of questions that you can ask yourself before embarking on your communication journey.

Question 1: Know your objective

Do I want to communicate the science or publicize it? If you want to communicate the science, you need to adjust your focus. Moving on from erasing ignorance and lack of technical education you need to focus on the quality of communication, the need for change. You also need to engage in a dialogue, build trust, transparency and engagement. For example, even if you run a social media account about basic biology, you can only keep posting stuff randomly or think more along the lines of how your posts can help your audiences think of the biological phenomenon more critically.

Question 2: Know your purpose

Who external to our/my organization/institute wants or needs me to ‘get the word out,’ and how do I know that? Here, it would help if you thought about your audiences, who are they, and why they want you to talk about the topic/area. Also, if your campaign intends to bring behavioural change, then
  • Is durable behaviour change really the goal of your communication, or perhaps you just want people to take a particular action?
  • What behaviour change model are you going to apply?
  • How do you think the behaviour change occurs?

Question 3: Know your audience

How do you know about the audience? Parts of the question:
  • What methods have been used to decide the audience?
  • What questions have been asked about the audience?
  • How confident are you in the reliability of the information?
  • What information do I already have about the audience that would guide this specific communication?
Here, it would help if you thought about how you came to decide the audiences. Did you use any method or tool? Did you talk to some of the people around you before you started? How reliable are these conversation? Or in the case of institutional PR, you can assess the formal tools or methods you or your department might have used for assessing the audiences.

Question 4: Know yourself

Assess your attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions. You may ask yourself the following questions:
  • While interacting, do I think how I  would think or feel if I were that other person, or do I try to rely on that other’s introspection?
  • Do I perceive others as biased when those others disagree with me? Perceiving them as being less or not objective.
  • Do I judge or try to categorize others according to stereotypes or lay theories about humans “in general”?
  • What can I change in my context?
  • How can I work with what I cannot?
  • Why the lack of knowledge about the subject stresses you? What is its impact on your life and practice?
Try reminding yourself the following:
  • Value the perspective of others, however different they are to you.
  • Try understanding how others perceive you and their feelings and thoughts about events/information you are putting out.
  • Try to understand the given social, cultural and political structures.
  • Situate decisions among other, alternate choices and paths.
  • Situate your gendered, racial, classed, affiliated, disciplined self.
If you are communicating your own research, it would help to ask yourself the questions such as the following: What is my perspective as I did this research?
  • What led me to that perception?
  • How do I know that?
  • So what?
  • Why did I conclude that?
  • What are the basic research terms understood —or not— by those with vastly different experiences?
  • What else might make my work incomprehensible to someone else?
  • What methods do I tend to use in collecting data?
By asking yourself the above question, you can critically examine your personal assumptions about science and the public and how these assumptions can shape your outreach efforts.

Question 5: Know the political & economic context

Ask yourself:
  • What are the political-economic influences and constraints?
  • How might this be shaping the outreach that is designed and delivered?
  • Am I willing, or able, to be open with the public about these influences and constraints?
  • If not, why not?
  • What are the implications of this?

Question 6: Know the institutional context

  • Explore the context of the institution you work with, its goals, objective, and limitations.
  • How these might influence the practices as scientists and scientist-communicators, and
  • Whether any of the findings can or cannot be communicated to the public.

Is this all?

Reflectivity does not operate as simply as the definition show. Although the questions mentioned above can help you understand your motives better and even differentiate yourself from the communication itself, it’s not an exhaustive list. You can always add your own questions, remove old ones, and perfect your own methods of reflexivity. Also, being reflexive does not mean disconnecting yourself from the communication itself. You still need to be a part of it and tell a story that engages audiences but does not let the science get distorted, and the audience feels alienated due to your own assumptions. The questions were either inspired or taken from the following resources: Reflexivity: Some techniques for interpretive researchers How we see ourselves and how we see others. Reflection and reflexivity: what & why Hold that Thought! The reflexive scientist: an approach to transforming public engagement
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