Friday, February 6, 2009

Understanding Versus Appreciation

Part 2 of 6 in the Research Roadmap for Public Communication of Science & Technology Series

In the past few decades there have been a couple of different approaches to science communication. One of the more popular philosophies is "public understanding of science." The theory is that to create a public more supportive of science, scientists should help/make the public understand science. In other words, the public needs to be educated.

But consider for a moment if someone was force feeding you unsolicited information about the intricacies of cricket, staging a play, or raising honey bees. You might learn something and still not care about it or support it. To create a supportive public it is essential to increase someone's appreciation of a subject by facilitating mental connections between their experiences and the science you know and love.

Many studies have been done that show that people are more engaged in supporting things if they feel personally connected to the subject. Knowing what something is or how it works is not the same thing as feeling connected. Which is why the public understanding of science model is not ideal, and Borchelt's findings are so important.

Borchelt found that there is a difference between understanding and appreciation of science. Understanding is basically how you intellectualize a certain topic. Appreciation is your opinion or evaluation of a topic.

So instead of just trying to educate the public about science, we can explain how fruit fly experiments help create vaccines, that bacteria can help trace genealogy, or how to tell when jellyfish are likely to be in the waters at the beach (hint: it has to do with temperature).

Increasing appreciation (through understanding) can be the key to improved science communication and advocacy.

For more on this topic, check out Ethan Siegel's post on his blog Starts with a Bang! (it's where we found the accompanying picture for today's post).

Part 1 in the Roadmap series is about audiences for science communication and can be found here and here.

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