Title: Towards the reflective science communication practitioner
Author(s) and Year: Tessa Roedema, Virgil Rerimassie, J. E. W. Broerse and J. F. H. Kupper 2022
Journal: Journal of Science Communication (open access)
TL;DR: While science communicators are concerned with constantly producing science content, pausing and reflecting on your work can help you fight misinformation, disinformation, and address science skepticism. It can also help you be a more flexible and humble science communicator who can engage with your audience in a more meaningful and impactful way.
Why I chose this paper: I was born and raised in a very conservative Puerto Rican family and I am consistently looking for strategies and techniques that can help me address my family’s science uncertainty and skepticism in a productive way. I have found that reflection is essential in not only helping me start these conversations, but also helping me continue to see the humanity in my family members during potentially difficult discussions.
How can we balance communicating complex information in a fast-paced and constantly changing environment? How do we connect with science skeptics? How do we find common ground when nothing seems to line up?
As science communicators, these are all questions we have faced or struggled with at some point in our work. In such a fast-paced media environment, there is a need to constantly produce timely science-based content while we fight misinformation and disinformation. But, what if I told you to take a break, pause, and reflect? This might seem contradictory to your goals as a science communicator, but there are some significant benefits to reflection in science communication.
The authors of ‘Towards the reflective science communication practitioner’ argue that reflective practices facilitate science conversations while providing a space to understand our shared values and worldviews. To support this theory, they conducted a study where they followed science communicators as they implemented reflective practices in their science communication work.
What is reflection?
As defined in this paper, reflection refers to ‘a process of continuous learning and gaining insights into how frames of thought, emotions, assumptions, worldviews, and values are linked to practices that are carried out by individuals, communities or institutes.’ Basically, to engage in reflection, one needs to evaluate their responses and thoughts during specific work situations. Reflection is an individual, iterative process that will change as you become more comfortable with it and as your audience, topic, and goals change. The aim of this reflection is not for the individual to just question and understand their own perspectives and outputs, but to engage in questioning existing routines and broader societal patterns and how they influence their work. This is especially significant when addressing misinformation, disinformation, and science uncertainty as it helps us find common ground and revamp our communication strategy.
The authors followed a total of 21 science communicators as they developed their reflective practice. The study focused on monitoring the impact of reflection and helping science communicators start to practice reflection and integrate it to their work.
All science communicators were associated with the RETHINK project, a series of science communication hubs in 7 European countries who share the goal of developing a deeper understanding of the science communication landscape of each country.
Participants engaged in semi-structured interviews, reflective diary entries, and dialogue sessions. Reflective diary entries followed the step by step reflective approach developed by Graham Gibbs. The diary entries focused on understanding the science communication activity, exploring thoughts, emotions and assumptions, understanding how worldviews and underlying factors influenced the activity, and identifying how science communicators were going to adapt their efforts in the future. Dialogues and interviews helped the authors learn more about each communicator’s science communication work, explore the science communicator’s journal entries and their interpretation of their reflection, and consider the impact and value of reflection in their specific activities and in the science communication field.
These activities helped the researchers understand each science communicator's individual work, their familiarity with reflection, how they interpreted their reflections, and how this process impacted their work and could impact the broader science communication space.
Reflection was most commonly used by study participants to identify an unknown audience, consider the best communication channel, explore concerns regarding an audience's confidence with science communication, and communicate scientific information when science is uncertain. The reflection activities provided a space for science communicators to not only explore these areas, but also their implicit assumptions and emotions and how they impacted their engagement with different audiences. The quote below belongs to a science communicator who found that reflection allowed them to explore their emotional reactions to science skepticism and helped reshape their communication strategy.
“I was disappointed to see him vent his doubts with regards to science. I associated doubt with conspiracy thinking. But those doubts do not make him a conspiracy theorist. I realized he was being vulnerable and open to input. That made my perspective change.”
Many participants highlighted the value of reflection in keeping assumptions in check and in helping them become more self-aware and open to engage with differing views and emotions. One study participant found this process was especially helpful when engaging with parents who did not want to vaccinate their children.
“I know that parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children are not bad parents. They are just scared that something will happen. So, for me, the baseline here is that we all want to have healthy children. We agree on this. And when we have this agreement, it’s easier to start the conversation."
Reflection also allowed science communicators to be more flexible in their efforts, and adapt their messaging and strategies once they identified failures. It helped them humanize audiences whose perspectives might differ from their own and provided a space for serious consideration and acknowledgement of differing perspectives, emotions, and values. One of the science communicators benefited from reflection in their podcast by adjusting their messaging to lead with more humanity and understanding.
“I think that I have tried to change my approach when I introduced a vaccine-related topic [in my podcast] to debunk misinformation. I now try to not go straight to the scientific information, but instead first acknowledge the valid reasons that people have for their hesitancy [to get vaccinated] and the fear that people have. Talk about ‘why’ people are scared. (. . . ) I feel that people will be far more receptive to science if they feel that their emotions are being acknowledged too.”
Actively incorporating reflection into your science communication is a great way to humanize your science communication work and increase its impact and relevance. Reflection facilitates understanding, flexibility in your messaging and strategy, and the creation of a safe space for difficult conversations.
There is also a broader consideration of the impact of reflection when considering our shared responsibility to change the status quo of production, inclusion, and the types of conversations media prioritizes. Reflection can help facilitate these conversations both at the individual and collective level. A good place to start is to engage in collective reflection with other science communicators to explore assumptions and biases with the end goal of making science communication more inclusive.
While this study focused on each individual’s reflection, there are still pending conversations on reflection at the organizational and societal level and the benefits they might have.
Edited by: Sarah Ferguson and Niveen AbiGhannam
Cover image credit: Pixabay, geralt.