Lecture tackles science communication through psychological and political lenses

With political divisions dictating science’s role in public discourse, the science of how research is communicated is becoming increasingly important.

Drawing from the fields of communication, psychology and political science, Erik Nisbet will deliver a lecture titled “The Partisan Brain: The Science of Communication about Controversial Science” at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 2 in Foster Auditorium of Paterno Library.

Nisbet, an associate professor of communication, environmental policy and political science at Ohio State University, studies the intersection of science and politics. His research examines how conservatives and liberals interpret messages on science-related topics. It turns out the two politically dissimilar groups have something in common — they tend to distrust messages they already disagree with.

“Humans process information in biased ways,” Nisbet said. “Some have written that conservatives are inherently deficient when processing scientific information, but that misinterprets what the research says. Both liberals and conservatives have the potential for biased attitudes and distrust of science.”

In his talk, Nisbet will review the science on partisanship and public attitudes toward science. He will identify divisions in many science topics and share lessons on building effective communications across many audiences.

Nisbet, whose research goals include providing best practices for communicators to connect with diverse audiences, says it boils down to what topics are being talked about. Scientists and communicators need to be aware that these biases exist in both their audience and themselves.

“Values and ideologies bias our interpretation, our communication and the way we process information,” Nisbet said. “Scientists need to take into account that they are trying to communicate with the general public, and they need to assume that there are people that will disagree.”

He added, “We can’t just write them off, because you end up writing off half the population. That is not an effective communication strategy.”

The lecture is sponsored by the Science Communication Program, a research program in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, in conjunction with the University's Institutes of Energy and the Environment and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

In addition to being an associate professor, Nisbet is a member of the Human Dimensions of the Environment research group at Ohio State and a faculty associate at the OSU Mershon Center for International Security Studies. He has published more than 30 journal articles and book chapters, including in Nature Climate Change, Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. His research also has been supported by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.