Public Understanding of Science

Not only do science writers need to know something about their subject matter and how to describe it in truthful and interesting ways, but they need to know who needs to hear or read or watch the story. Writing is always a two-way process. When we are beginning as writers we tend to think one-sidedly, only about what is inside our own minds and our own words. But part of our growth as writers is to think more about the people on the other side—our readers, our audience.

Why is audience important? The usual answer is that science knowledge is important to the audience—they need to know and understand the information being communicated.

Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication at American University, classifies dimensions of science knowledge.

1. Practical or utilitarian: It is often stated that science in everyday life is invisible, taken for granted. But science knowledge is used daily when you make decisions, like fixing your car, interpreting packaging on food, what to wear for the weather. Making such decisions might require a limited knowledge of basic scientific terms, concepts, and facts.

2. Then there is civic or democratic knowledge, sufficient to make sense of a news report, or interpret competing arguments about a policy decision. The public is often asked to make decisions about new technologies that could have far-reaching effects, both on its own wellbeing and on the rest of the world. To make these decisions, people need knowledge so that they can reason well about issues involving science.

3. Nisbet’s third type of understanding is institutional, about the politics and workings of science: who funds it, how is it regulated, etc. This level of understanding also means a capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience—to know how science works. Maine’s Governor LePage has said he won’t remove rules that are based on science. But how will we know if a rule is “science-based” or not?

All of these theories about scientific literacy and public understanding are based on the idea of a gap between science and the people who need the knowledge that science provides. Here’s a representation of what that gap might look like (thanks to Rob Helpy-Chalk):


Scientists communicate to each other and share knowledge through presentations and publications. The public, the ultimate target audience or the users of the information, could be policy makers, town officials, citizens. The gap between these two realms is well-accepted and often mentioned in conversations about science communication. But rather than accepting the gap, take a closer look. Is it real? Where did it come from?

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (2002) pointed out that the gap between scientists and the public is ancient and originated in the different requirements of theoretical and practical knowledge. In ancient times, however, both kinds of knowledge were valued, and it was not expected that ordinary citizens should become like philosophers or naturalists (the predecessors of today’s scientists). For centuries, it was thought and language only that separated them. Members of the public with an interest in science were encouraged to interact with scientists. Over time, as scientists became more professional and more specialized (think quantum physics),the enlightened public of amateurs, a term that still retained a strong positive connotation in the nineteenth century, was transformed into a “mass of gullible, irrational and ignorant people” in the twentieth century… In a relatively short period of time, public knowledge became irrelevant and scientists held a monopoly on legitimate knowledge.

In industrializing nations such as the U.S., science was idealized as the preferred route to economic expansion and social emancipation. The more citizens knew about science, the more they would support this view. As Boyce Rensberger has pointed out, the work of most science reporters in those days consisted largely of translating scientific jargon and explaining the statements of scientists and medical leaders. In the 1930s and ‘40s, science journalists believed that it was their job to persuade the public to accept science as the [economic] salvation of society.

So what have we learned? Does the American public understand and “accept” science?

The National Science Foundation surveys public attitudes and understanding of science every two years, and for several decades Americans have been asked the same series of true-false questions. The number of correct answers to these questions has remained flat—the average American adult does not “know” any more “science” today than he or she did twenty years ago.


Only 51% of Americans knew that electrons are smaller than atoms. One-quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun. And 47% believe that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. Four out of five Americans do not understand the concept of a scientific study (Miller 2004).

But Americans are not necessarily smarter about other topics, and even scientists get many of these questions wrong (Stocklmayer and Bryant 2011). As many have pointed out, including Cornelia Dean and Jon Miller, most people leave science behind when they graduate high school, and the science we consider as citizens is not the facts collected in textbooks, but science that will not occur for another twenty years. The science we consider as citizens is more recent, unfolding every day.

So where do people get their information? How is the knowledge gap being so unsuccessfully filled?

According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the Internet is slowly closing in on television as Americans’ main source of news. Television remains the most widely used source for national and international news  but, the percentage saying they regularly watch local TV news has dipped below 50% for the first time (48%).


Another Pew study found that the days of loyalty to a particular news organization on a particular piece of technology in a particular form are gone. The overwhelming majority of Americans (92%) use multiple platforms to get news on a typical day, including national TV, local TV, the internet, local newspapers, radio, and national newspapers. Some 46% of Americans say they get news from four to six media platforms on a typical day. Just 7% get their news from a single media platform on a typical day, mostly older, well educated, upper middle class whites (Purcell et al. 2010).

Yet more evidence has emerged that newspapers (whether accessed in print or digitally) are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. Nearly three quarters (72%) of adults are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need (Miller et al. 2012).

Online and digital news consumption, meanwhile, continues to increase, with many more people now getting news on cell phones, tablets or other mobile platforms. And perhaps the most dramatic change in the news environment has been the rise of social networking sites. The percentage of Americans saying they saw news or news headlines on a social networking site yesterday has doubled – from 9% to 19% – since 2010. Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form (Pew Research Center 2012).

The social media trends may mean that the 44% of adults who don’t follow the news regularly may be getting information via social media and other online sources.

What about science news specifically? Sources for science news parallel the general news findings from the Pew studies, with the Internet surpassing television as the dominant source for science and technology news. When it comes to specific scientific issues, more people turn to the Internet.


The most popular online news subjects are the weather (followed by 81% of internet news users), national events (73%), health and medicine (66%), business and the economy (64%), international events (62%), and… science and technology (60%).

Slide27And people say they want more coverage of science. Asked what subjects they would like to receive more coverage, 44% said scientific news and discoveries (Horrigan 2006).

A study of the New York Times most-emailed articles in 2009 found that readers preferred e-mailing articles with a positive theme, including long articles on intellectually challenging subjects. They shared stories that inspired awe, including science stories (Tierney 2010).

So, we know that people want science-based information, that they actively seek it, and they aren’t necessarily deterred by length or complexity.

How skillfully or how often Americans engage in the search for scientific information, whether on the Internet or elsewhere, remains unknown. In a January 4, 2013 commentary in Science, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele note that among the U.S. public, time spent on the World Wide Web has been linked to more positive attitudes toward science. Online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps caused partly by science coverage in traditional media that tends to be tailored to highly educated audiences. Yet one of the challenges of the current situation is the sheer volume of information available on the Internet.  The social environment of the web influences the context for science stories. Just the tone of the comments following balanced science stories can significantly alter how audiences think about the subject matter.


Bensaude-Vincent, B. 2002. A genealogy of the increasing gap between science and the public. Public Understanding of Science 10:99–113.

Allum, N., P. Sturgis, D. Tabourazi and I. Brunton-Smith. 2008. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: a meta-analysis. Public Understanding of Science 17: 35.

Horrigan, J.B. 2006. The Internet as a resource for news and information about science. Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Inglehart, R. 1990. Culture Shift in Advanced Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Miller, C., K. Purcell, and T. Rosenstiel. 2012. 72% of Americans follow local news closely. Pew Research Center.

Miller, J. 2004. Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: what we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding of Science 13:273-294. Jon D. Miller has been studying public interactions with science for more than 20 years. A recent summary of his work can be found in Science and the Media, a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Nisbet, M. 2005. The multiple meanings of public understanding. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Pew Research Center for People and the Press. 2012. Trends in News Consumption: 1991-2012.

Purcell, K., L. Rainie, A. Mitchell, T. Rosenstiel, and K. Olmstead. 2010. Understanding the participatory news consumer. Pew Research Center.

Stocklmayer, S.M., and C. Bryant. 2011. Science and the public—what should people know? International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement 2:81-101.

Getting the Message Out: Communicating the Science of Pond Scum

I recently presented a communication workshop at the annual meeting of the Northeast Algal Society—scientists and students who study algae, both the microscopic plants that float in pond water and the giant kelp forests of the ocean.

The theme of this year’s gathering was “getting the message out.” The conference organizers, Dr. Jessica Muhlin of Maine Maritime Academy and Dr. Karen Pelletreau of the University of Maine, felt a need to convey the interest and importance of their subject matter to people outside their field (as evidence, check out this video they made).

Those who work with algae have a two-part challenge, because before they can talk about their research or why it might be important, they have to correct misconceptions about algae with some basic education (like in this video from Dr. Thierry Chopin).

The scientists at the meeting were “in the petri dish,” at the kind of internal meeting and conference where scientists really shine as communicators. They are used to talking to each other and exchanging ideas, which is fundamental to the process that is science. But scientists need to be reminded that people outside the petri dish have no idea what they do or how they do it, or most importantly why. As Cornelia Dean wrote in her book, Am I Making Myself Clear, most people leave science behind when they graduate high school, and the science they consider as citizens is not the facts collected in textbooks.

graphic of message box tool

There are various tools to help phycologists and other scientists craft their message. The National Science Foundation has a “message triangle,” which they developed as part of their ongoing Becoming the Messenger workshops. Communications consultant Eric Eckl promotes the use of “words that work” to natural resource agencies and nonprofit organizations. Andy Goodman encourages the use of storytelling. And Nancy Baron of Seaweb and Compass has the “Message Box.” The basic elements of all these frameworks are the same.

However, many of the scientists at the Northeast Algal Society meeting conduct basic research or focus on taxonomy or biodiversity, topics that are difficult to connect to contemporary policy or daily life.

Realizing that many of the participants might struggle with even a simple tool like the Message Box, I tried to find some alternative approaches for those scientists who want to communicate to the public about subjects that aren’t “news” or “policy-relevant.”

The WOW factor.

Most algae are not what you might call charismatic megafauna, unless they involve solar-powered sea slugs or coral reefs. But algae can still be impressive, and casting your subject as a superlative—biggest, oldest, fastest, coldest—is one entry into the human imagination. What would someone who knows nothing about your work find weird, fascinating, or just plain cool?

For example, when I was planning my talk I learned that algae produce most of the oxygen we breathe (because they are aquatic and our planet is a blue planet. Lots of water = lots of algae = lots of oxygen), making them the most important plants on Earth and photosynthesis the most important process on the planet. (For a great lesson on this, watch a lecture by Russell Chapman of Scripps.)

Tell a story.

Storytelling advocate Andy Goodman says that “Humans tend to believe the story and reject the data.” Personal stories can make up for an abstract topic. Providing a glimpse into life outside the laboratory helps to show that scientists are “real people.” Not everyone is born a scientist. Many people take a circuitous route to science, and not all scientists practice “research” in the classic sense, but use their science degrees toward other pursuits; if more young people knew this, they may be more inclined to enter the field. Nancy Baron wrote, “Most scientists want to stick to the facts and the research. You have been trained to be rational and detached—to the point that you write in the passive voice. However, people are interested in other people. Scientists are fascinating, even when their research topic might not be. People are interested to know what you do day-to-day, including why and how you do it. Personal details are a ‘way in’ to the story.” Why are you willing to spend years studying one particular thing? What did all of that dedication reveal?

Check out Northeast Algal Society member Dylan Scott’s blog, which uses a personal viewpoint to communicate science (Dylan also recommends

Make it pretty.

Whenever possible, as a first instinct or last resort, use sensory details. This approach is especially relevant to algae, which make for beautiful images. Use photographs of your study subject and its environment. Remind your audience of the beauty and wonder of nature. Does your subject move or make noise? What does it smell like, taste like, feel like? Once you get your audience’s attention you can get them interested in the details. For inspiration, check out seaweed art at the Cryptogamic Botany Company.

Make it local.

Messages have to be tailored to their intended audience, and people are curious about their own backyards. Can you make your story local? If the organism is rare or exotic, is there a local analog? Can you tell an audience about the algae in their own neighborhood? For example, the local audience on the Schoodic Peninsula, where the Northeast Algal Society meeting was held, would know about harmful algal blooms because red tides affect their local clam flats. Or they might be interested in studies of seaweed because of the predominance of rockweed and kelp along their shores. How can you relate your work to the place where you are sharing your message?