Beyond mere dissemination | Investigator’s opinion
I recently exchanged ideas via Twitter with Manolo Quezon, whom I have the honor to call my colleague columnist. The conversation ensued following his article on Cargo Cult, which he prefaced by talking about how people tend, among other things, to be stuck in their comfort zones and tied to bureaucratic thinking. . This convenient shelter also fixes them in their tracks, prevents them from innovating, discourages them from working to obtain more or improve their lives.
There was a lot to unpack from his work, and my few sentences are a poor description of his essay. His ideas nonetheless resonated with the findings of my science communication research. Some government offices, steeped in old habits, seem trapped in a tarpaulin cult: they believe that communicating simply means disseminating information to as many people as possible, in posters, infographics or tarpaulins, as if the mere act of publishing facts could spur people to action.
This pandemic, however, has shown us that science is not just about information, but a constant questioning of the status quo, openness to criticism, a willingness to adapt to change. Science is an ongoing process where new discoveries can emerge, but where we have to work with the best knowledge (which comes from systematic work) at that time.
This volatile and uncertain environment also means that communication must move away from the “one audience, one message” assumption. The key is to investigate our many audiences first, and then act on the data. I said the same to Manolo, who, with his expertise in government communication, sobered me up with a good dose of reality: Filipinos may want information given to them in detail, but government resources and infrastructure do not. allow information provided in bulk. and it has already worked in election campaigns.
I’ll admit: posters can win votes. In the case of natural hazards, nutrition and health, however, my research shows a different story. People don’t stop to read the tarps detailing evacuation routes, but they will react when the barangay tanod knocks on their door and tells them a storm is approaching. They won’t always read the infographics, but they will discuss how to fit nutritious meals into their budget with the barangay health workers. They won’t start packing their things to prepare for the floods after watching the weather reports, but they will talk about the news with their neighbors and then decide to evacuate together. The most interesting (confusing?) Thing? These results differ even among barangays in the same city.
I once shared these findings with a fundraiser and then recommended workshops for the barangay volunteers, who know their area best. These volunteers could be trained in assessment and discussion (not dissemination) of information.
“You are an expert in science communication, aren’t you? Laughed the listener. “Just design informative posters! “
The auditor was simply mirroring the government’s comfort zone: pounding everyone with information no matter what the problem. Expect people to obey. Get frustrated when they don’t. Add the official’s name to the printed communication materials to get additional mileage from the campaign. Repeat.
I couldn’t give in to demand, not when the data told me otherwise: when it comes to certain issues, we are conversationalists. And we too are a diverse people who must first be understood.
Reducing science communication to the dissemination of information does people a disservice. People are neither blank slates to write on nor empty buckets to fill. They don’t need more posters or infographics.
We need more systematic research on science communication. Then we let go of what we think is intuitive, challenge our assumptions, and act on what the data says, the way science has trained us.
Above all, we need a government that listens to specific groups, embraces their diversity of concerns and identities, and understands that they are people, not just votes. In a world where bureaucrats are trapped in cults, loving and listening first is really radical.
I will be giving a conference on new avenues of research for scientific communication from 4.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on November 19, via Zoom, as part of the Ateneo Communication Department’s series of seminars. You can register for free at https://bit.ly/LSCommDeptSeminarSeries2021
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