Are you a scientist in need of advice about how to educate the public without putting your foot in your mouth? If so, you may be in luck.
Two Canadian scientists have laid out a path for boosting academic credibility with the public, in a letter that gently warns colleagues not to be careless in media interviews.
Their message comes at a time when facts, evidence and the role of science have all come under attack by populist leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump or from industry lobby groups. In some cases, these politicians or industry groups have been known to play fast and loose with the truth and attack the credibility of anyone offering evidence that proves to be inconvenient.
Christine Goulet, who works at the Southern California Earthquake Center, and Maurice Lamontagne, who works at the Geological Survey of Canada, are two Canadian seismologists who decided to write about the importance of scientists being empathetic in public when describing high-stress natural disasters.
Their letter, titled “Not Everyone Likes to Hear You Say, ‘Earthquakes Are Fun,’ was published on June 13 in Seismological Research Letters, one of two well-known journals in the field.
It notes that many people in different societies have lived through stressful situations or had their lives threatened, and light-hearted messages from scientists about traumatic events like earthquakes could end up making people experience that stress again.
“People near the epicentre...they fear for their safety, the safety of their loved ones,” said Lamontagne, in an interview near his office, inside a Natural Resources Canada building in Ottawa.
“Sometimes seismologists like to stay in their field — to them, a magnitude (measurement) is obvious. They don’t know how to explain it in simple terms so people can understand. It’s much easier to stay in your field, not trying to adjust your message — first to be understood, but also to give information that could be useful to people.”
Facts, evidence, role of science under attack
Lamontagne, who has been a seismologist with the Canadian government for over three decades, said he first realized the emotional impact earthquakes can have on people after getting involved in the 1988 Saguenay quake, one of the most significant in Canadian history.
“In the days of internet and social media, misplaced earthquake enthusiasm could come back to haunt you,” the letter reads. #cdnsci #scicomm #cdnpoli #earthquakes
Goulet and Lamontagne weren’t responding to any specific article or media interview, or had any particular colleagues in mind, said Lamontagne.
But maintaining strong public credibility has been particularly important of late for government scientists.
In the past week alone, scientists have flagged a disinformation campaign being led by logging industry representatives who have denied established evidence. Instead, the industry representatives have gone on the offensive against research that would require them to change their practices and take more steps to protect disappearing caribou.
In their new letter, the seismologists were responding to a phenomenon they witnessed over the years from their colleagues. Lamontagne said some are more open to adjusting their message than others.
“I’ve heard that in the past, some seismologists thought it would be a good idea to say ‘OK, this is a small earthquake, don’t worry, earthquakes are fun.’ I’m just raising the point — is it a good idea to say that? We’re raising the point that it’s probably not,” he said.
The letter says if a scientist’s goal is to reach the widest possible audience, taking an empathetic approach is key. “In the days of internet and social media, misplaced earthquake enthusiasm could come back to haunt you,” the letter reads.
The instantaneous nature of the internet means one scientist’s comments can make its way around the world in a short period of time.
Lamontagne said that became clear to him after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when he was doing French-language media interviews in Montreal, and realized that word travelled back to Haiti through families with roots in both countries.
Connect to 'reality of people’s lives and experience'
Goulet and Lamontagne recommend that scientists “connect to the reality of people’s lives and experience” in their communication, which they say will improve their public credibility.
“We must acknowledge that earthquakes can be stressful events and recognize that if people feel uneasy about them, it is absolutely normal,” the letter reads.
They point to research that shows “people accept messages more readily when they include elements of compassion, commitment and optimism.” They also say people focus more on negative information than positive, and tend to remember the first and last thing they hear.
As a result, they recommend statements that are short, to the point and give practical advice — like visiting a website for more information, or remembering the earthquake safety drill of “drop, cover and hold on.”
Lamontagne said he’s gotten a lot of feedback on the letter from other seismologists on Facebook. In general, he said, the letter is liked and has sparked a discussion.
“There’s only one person who said, ‘Well, do we have to (act in) a role? Be likeable?’ And my reply was, no, we don’t have to play a role, we just have to think about people who go through earthquakes,” he said.
“It’s like talking to your friend.”