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Communicating Agriculture with a Concerned Public: Lessons from Hostage Negotiation, Customer Service and Aristotle
Dr. Kevin Folta

Summary authored by: Boris M. Arevalo, Sophia C. Orzechowski, Alex D. Potash

Many scientists fail to effectively communicate scientific findings to the public, which creates a gap between the scientific community and the general public. Often, scientists feel that they are the authority in their field and try to impose their knowledge on members of the public without first gaining their trust. People are intimidated by this approach and therefore less likely to engage in scientific conversation. This is especially clear when scientists use jargon; a non-scientific audience feels unengaged in the discussion and loses interest. However, this does not mean that non-scientists are not interested in science. Many people question how controversial issues such as genetically modified organisms, wildlife management, gene editing, and de-extinction of organisms have a direct impact on their lives and the natural environment. Scientists must use effective communication methods to present their knowledge so that people can make informed decisions. Failure to communicate scientific findings and build rapport with the public stalls application of innovative products and practices. Thus, enhanced communication is critical for bridging the gap between innovation and application. A huge part of effective communication is learning how to earn the trust of people who are skeptical or dismissive.

To understand how effective, persuasive communication works, it is important to have a general idea of how the human brain functions. Human brain function can be described using two broad systems. System One, based in the limbic area of the brain, deals with emotions, reactions and irrational behaviour. This is the basis of human instinct; we react to actions from the present situation, and this can alter the way we feel. System Two, based in the neocortex, involves logical and strategic thinking.  This type of thinking requires more calculation and is usually a slower process because of the cognitive complexity involved. Most of the general public reacts based on System One, while scientists, because of their training in analytical thinking, are more likely to rely on System Two. The media often capitalizes on the emotional thinking of the public, developing stories that tug at people's feelings. Sometimes, the media's goal is to generate fear and a sense of danger in the general public which can sometimes be accomplished by providing false information instead of genuine facts. Scientists will engage people much more effectively if they can avoid triggering a System One knee-jerk response to a contentious issue. The best way to do this is demonstrate homophily - that is, to highlight the shared similarities between scientists and the people they are hoping to engage.

People tend to surround themselves with other people who have similar worldviews and interests, forming "tribes." Tribe members adopt and defend similar premises even if those premises are wrong, and use the group as an identity to anchor deeply held beliefs. To effectively communicate and bridge the gap between innovation and application, scientists must establish trust by sharing information in a language that people understand. This leads the public to no longer viewing scientists as a threat, but as part of their "tribe", helping scientist build rapport. It is also important to acknowledge that members of the public often view scientists as competent and knowledgeable and therefore trustworthy. Many times, however, scientists fail to appeal to people's feelings by just providing pure facts. This is why facts alone do not change minds; the importance of empathy and feelings can be summarized by a Maya Angelou quote: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Scientists have a well-honed intellectual ability to synthesize information, which helps them understand and debate complicated subjects. However, scientists need to be active listeners to engage in empathetic conversation with non-scientists. Active listening helps build public trust and provides people with a sense of power and control over the conversation. This can also help scientists gain the trust of someone who is emotional and irrational about a subject, and allow the scientist to become accepted as part of the "tribe." Much of the effort in communicating science to the public should focus on the vast number of people who do not know who to trust, as well as those who are undecided about a contentious issue. These people are thirsty for information and it is imperative that scientists share their information in an effective way.

Scientists need to produce content that is geared toward the general public, reaching out beyond the scientific "tribe." When publishing a scholarly article, it is also as important to produce a report in the local media to share recent findings with the general public. Sharing scientific knowledge is important, as is a transparent representation how scientific research is conducted, but scientists must recognize that the general public is primarily interested in how new results are applied and how they affect people's daily lives.

Three books that all scientists should read to improve their science communication skills are: 1) Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman 2) Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss 3) Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers by Jay Baer.

About Dr. Kevin Folta:

Dr. Folta is presently the chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He received his PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and his Masters in Biology from Northern Illinois University. His research focuses on how genetics and the environment affect plant quantity and quality, with a focus on small fruits. He has an extensive list of peer reviewed publications in many different journals, including Nature Genetics, Plant Physiology, and Current Opinion in Plant Biology. In 2008, Dr. Folta was awarded the highly prestigious NSF Career Award, for "early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization."