Communicating Science Across the Partisan Divide

Building Public Trust in Science

During our April Twitter chat, we discussed the topic of “Building Public Trust in Science: Communicating Science Across the Partisan Divide.”  We were joined by special guest, Mark Smith (@MS71541719), Honorable Mention Winner of our State Your Mission Challenge and former climate change skeptic turned environmental advocate.  To kick off our discussion, we briefly reviewed the recent article, “Scientific Risk Communication about Controversial Issues Influences Public Perceptions of Scientists’ Political Orientations and Credibility” by Emily Vraga, et al.  Check out the summary of the article here.

This article highlighted the recent phenomenon of science (and by default, scientists) becoming politicized, particularly around certain issues that are often the focus of partisan debates, such as climate change.

  1. How can scientists engage in essential science communication about polarized issues with members of the public who may not agree with the scientist’s message or perceived position on a respective issue?
  2. How can science communication approaches build meaningful connections with the public in ways that meet people where they are?
  3. Can effective science communication that specifically addresses conservative audiences enhance scientific learning and build trust across the partisan divide?

A LOT of great insights emerged from our discussion in thinking about building trust to communicate science across the partisan divide.  Below are the big ideas summarized from our Twitter chat.

What is risk?

Risk is ultimately perception.

Risk is best understood in relation to something. When communicating about risk, setting the “risk” in comparison to something tangible, rather than talking about it in the abstract, may support more effective risk communication.

It’s difficult to describe or identify risk or trust as abstractions but become more clear when paired with a concrete action, person, science endeavor, etc.


“Trust is a gateway to risk communication.”

In other words, for risk to be communicated effectively, the audience needs to perceive the communicating scientist as someone that they can trust.

Environment matters for trust building.

If possible, find non-political “neutral” space for interactions when trying to build trust and facilitate communication across the partisan divide.

Culture is legitimate and important for science communication.

As science communicators, we must recognize cultural differences between groups and that the concerns and issues within particular cultural groups are legitimate (i.e., true for the people in the respective group).

Skepticism can be an asset in science communication.

Skepticism plays an important role in science communication both for the communicator and the person with whom she/he is communicating.

Listening is harder than it sounds.

Start small.  Focus initially on relationship building. 

Identify commonalities as a starting point.

Start by focusing on something that all people in the communication interaction have in common and can agree on (even if it isn’t always the facts).


Be familiar and present.

Go where the people with whom you want to communicate tend to congregate.  Preferably, come with someone who is a trusted advocate and belongs to that community.  Come with the goal of listening meaningfully, rather than the goal of changing minds.

Know who you are talking to. 

Twitter as a forum for listening??? 

Check out our new ScicommJC podcast where we chat more with Mark about the role of former skeptics as current science advocates for innovative science communication.

What is your take on all that we discussed?