How We Can Improve Health Science Communication

This two-day conference brought together scholars in health communication, information processing, decision making, and learning to formulate more effective ways to convey health research findings to the public. The goals were to improve the means, messages, and outcomes of health science communication and to explore research agendas that will continue to advance scientific communication.

The conference was free and open to the public. It was sponsored by the
National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Center for Political Studies (CPS).

Portions of the conference were live-streamed. The videos from the live-stream are available for viewing.

The conference was live tweeted from the CPS Twitter account, using hashtags #HScomm and #scicomm

For more information, contact

Dates and Locations

Friday, June 17, 2016 | 8:30-4:30 | 1430 Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Saturday, June 18, 2016 | 9-12:30 | Henderson Rm, Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

8:30-9:15 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are available for viewing.

Presentation: On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Ignorance

It is impossible to make sense of persistent controversy over certain forms of decision-relevant science without understanding what happens in the vastly larger number of cases in which members of the public converge on the best available evidence without misadventure. In order to live well—or just to live, period—individuals must make use of much more scientific information than any (including a scientist) is in a position to comprehend or verify for him- or herself. They achieve this feat not by acquiring even a rudimentary level of expertise in any of the myriad forms of science essential to their well-being but rather by becoming experts at recognizing what science knows—at identifying who knows what about what, at distinguishing the currency of genuine scientific understanding from the multiplicity of counterfeit alternatives. Their rational recognition of valid science, moreover, is guided by recourse to cues that pervade their everyday interactions with other nonexperts, whose own behavior convincingly vouches for the reliability of whatever scientific knowledge their own actions depend on. Cases of persistent controversy over decision-relevance science don’t stem from defects in public science comprehension; they are not a result of the failure of scientists to clearly communicate their own technical knowledge; nor are they convincingly attributable to orchestrated deception, as treacherous as such behavior genuinely is. Rather such disputes are a consequence of one or another form of disruption to the system of conventions that normally enable individuals to recognize valid science despite their inability to understand it. To preempt such disruptions and to repair them when they occur, science must form a complete understanding of the ordinary processes of science recognition, and democratic societies must organize themselves to use what science knows about how ordinary members of the public come to recognize what is known to science.

Presenter: Dan Kahan, Yale Law School

Dan KahanDan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. His primary research interests are risk perception, science communication, and the application of decision science to law and policymaking. He is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, an interdisciplinary team of scholars who use empirical methods to examine the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and related facts. In studies funded by the National Science Foundation, his research has investigated public disagreement over climate change, public reactions to emerging technologies, and conflicting public impressions of scientific consensus.

9:15-10:00 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are available for viewing.

Presentation: Helping Patients Decide: Ten Steps to Better Risk Communication

With increasing frequency, patients are being asked to make complex decisions about cancer screening, prevention, and treatment. These decisions are fraught with emotion and cognitive difficulty simultaneously. Many Americans have low numeracy skills making the cognitive demands even greater whenever, as is often the case, patients are presented with risk statistics and asked to make comparisons between the risks and benefits of multiple options and to make informed medical decisions. In this commentary, we highlight 10 methods that have been empirically shown to improve patients’ understanding of risk and benefit information and/or their decision making. The methods range from presenting absolute risks using frequencies (rather than presenting relative risks) to using a risk format that clarifies how treatment changes risks from preexisting baseline levels to using plain language. We then provide recommendations for how health-care providers and health educators can best to communicate this complex medical information to patients, including using plain language, pictographs, and absolute risks instead of relative risks.

Presenter: Peter Ubel, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University

Peter UbelPeter Ubel M.D. is a physician and behavioral scientist whose research and writing explores the mixture of rational and irrational forces that affect our health, our happiness and the way our society functions. Ubel is the Madge and Dennis T. McLawhorn University Professor of Business, Public Policy and Medicine at Duke University. His research explores controversial issues about the role of values and preferences in health care decision making, from decisions at the bedside to policy decisions. He uses the tools of decision psychology and behavioral economics to explore topics like informed consent, shared decision making and health care cost containment.

10:30-11:15 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are available for viewing.

Presentation: Communication Inequalities and the Communication of Science

Two major characteristics of the twenty-first century are: (a) the generation and dissemination of significant amount of information on science and health and (b) the proliferation of platforms through which this information is accessed and used by consumer audiences. Even as the sheer amount of scientific information, especially in health, and its availability is increasing, it is our contention that the benefits from this information revolution are accruing unequally across social groups with the fault lines drawn along place, class and race/ethnicity. Our work has systematically documented these “communication inequalities” among different social classes and racial and ethnic groups. In this presentation, drawing on social ecological model of communication inequalities, we will illustrate our arguments drawing on our empirical work and identify the antecedents and consequences of the science/health communication inequalities. Last, we will map potential solutions that could mitigate the adverse consequences of communication inequalities and future research, practice and policy directions.

Presenter: Kasisomayajula Viswanath, School of Public Health and Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard University

Kasisomayajula ViswanathDr. K. “Vish” Viswanath is a Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and in the McGraw-Patterson Center for Population Sciences at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). Dr. Viswanath’s work, drawing from literatures in communication science, social epidemiology, and social and health behavior sciences, focuses on translational communication science to influence public health policy and practice. His primary research is in documenting the relationship between communication inequalities, poverty and health disparities, and knowledge translation through community-based research to address health disparities.

11:15-12:00 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are available for viewing.

Improving Population Health in a Politicized World: Understanding and Overcoming Communication Barriers

Public health scholars increasingly argue that significant improvements in population health will only be achieved through changes to the social, economic, and environmental conditions that shape health; individual behavior changes and improving access to health care will not be sufficient. While the public health literature supporting the social determinants of health is robust, these ideas face resistance among the public because they do not conform to the general public’s understanding of the causes of health and illness. In addition, efforts to communicate about health equity and the social determinants of health confront challenges related to the partisan cues and underlying values such messages contain. In this talk, Dr. Gollust will present empirical findings from a series of studies examining the effects of communication about public health policy issues, including health disparities, obesity, and vaccines. She will demonstrate the importance of lessons from the field of political psychology in health communication, focusing on the communication challenges of an increasingly politicized public health and health policy discourse.

Presenter: Sarah Gollust, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota

Sarah GollustDr. Gollust is an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where she is also Associate Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program. Dr. Gollust is a social scientist studying the intersections of communication, politics, and health policy. Her research examines the processes through which information gets translated into the media, shapes public attitudes, and influences the health policy process. Dr. Gollust received her PhD from the University of Michigan and was a RWJF Health & Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

1:30-2:15 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper are available for viewing.

The Challenge of False Beliefs: Understanding and Countering Misperceptions in Politics and Health Care

Misperceptions about politics and health can undermine public debate and distort peo­ple’s choices and behavior. Why do people hold these false or unsupported beliefs and why is it so difficult to change their minds? An emerging literature examines the difficulty of correcting false or unsupported beliefs and the reasons for this resistance, but relatively little is known about the sources of misperceptions, the psychology of misperception be­lief, or how to most effectively counter these false claims. In addition, most studies focus on the mass public’s beliefs in well-known misperceptions; the mechanisms by which false beliefs become politicized, disseminated, and integrated into individual belief systems and the role of elites and the media in that process are less well understood.

Presenter: Brendan Nyhan, Department of Government, Dartmouth College, and The New York Times

Brendan NyhanBrendan Nyhan is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College whose research focuses on misperceptions about politics and health care. Before coming to Dartmouth, he was a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. Nyhan has also been a contributor to the New York Times website The Upshot since its launch in 2014. He previously served a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review; co-edited Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of political spin that was syndicated in Salon and the Philadelphia Inquirer; and co-authored All the President's Spin, a New York Times bestseller.

2:15-3:00 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are are available for viewing.

The Value of Storytelling in Public Health and Medicine

From public health campaigns to clinical settings, medical professionals must recognize, understand, and intervene in people's most vulnerable moments. It is emotionally charged work, with the highest of stakes. Failure to connect with individual patients, other health care professionals, and communities can sabotage treatment, erode trust, and increase human suffering. Storytelling is a powerful tool for patients and providers alike to give voice to their experiences, confront illness and mortality, and connect knowledge to action. The dialogues created by storytelling are an essential component of effective, humane medicine. This presentation will focus on how narrative competencies might be conceptualized, taught, and employed in public health, medical training, and science communication.

Presenter: Liz Neeley,The Story Collider

Liz NeeleyLiz Neeley is the Executive Director of The Story Collider, which focuses on true, personal stories of science told live on stage, blending the best ideas from the arts with the strongest research on communication. For the past decade, she has been helping scientists around the world tell more compelling stories about their work, specializing in environmental science, journalism, and social media. She delights in good data, beautiful ideas, and gorgeous design. She is a now a member of the Advisory Board to the CommsLab at MIT, and previously with COMPASS and affiliate staff at University of Washington.

3:30-4:15 - Friday, June 17, 2016 - 1430 Institute for Social Research

This presentation was not live-streamed.

Presentation: Opportunities for Scientific Health Communication in the Podcast Era

An estimated 57 million Americans listened to podcasts in February 2016, according to Edison Research. While this number pales in comparison to the number of Americans who listened to terrestrial radio in the same time period, the two listening platforms are moving in opposite directions from an audience growth perspective. Podcast listening grew at a rate of greater than 20% last year while terrestrial radio listening has been mostly flat. Public radio has felt the impact of this seismic shift in listening behavior like no other sector. Early adopters of podcasts have rewarded public radio producers and journalists with an enormous share of their listening. While some long-standing public radio programs have thrived in this new environment (Fresh Air, This American Life, Radiolab), news magazine programs--the traditional outlets for health and science coverage--have not. Specialized, theme-specific programs seem to be gaining greater traction in on-demand listening than news-driven programs. This shift in audience and format presents an opportunity for health science coverage, but there remain significant challenges. In our paper, we will outline the shift in listening and program creation practices, and point to the opportunities and challenges for journalists, scientists, and funders.

Presenter: Graham Griffith, Public radio producer and media strategist

Graham GriffithGraham Griffith is a career public radio producer with a track record of creating programming that responds to the changing media landscape. After cutting his teeth in the late 1990s at Public Interest—a talk show produced at WAMU in Washington and distributed nationally to public radio stations by NPR—he has spent the better part of 2 decades in new program development. From creating the award-winning, national talk show On Point after the 9-11 attacks and leading the launch of The Takeaway in 2008, to his current work with teams of journalists at On Being, Fresh Air, Latino USA, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), he has developed a unique perspective on the audio specifically, and journalism in general.

Co-author: Elizabeth Hansen, Joint Program in Sociology and Organizational Behavior, Harvard Business School, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Elizabeth HansenElizabeth Hansen is a doctoral candidate in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School and a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Her research focuses on the dynamics of work, technology, and organizational change in industries undergoing digital transformation. In her dissertation, Elizabeth examines the strategic responses of organizations in public media to the rise of podcasting and the migration of audiences to new listening platforms.

9:00-9:45 - Saturday, June 18, 2016 - Henderson Room, Michigan League

A video of the presentation and the white paper and slides are available for viewing.

Scientific Reasoning Ability and its Implications for Science Communication

Scientific evidence is important to many decisions faced by nonscientists, such as whether or not to get a yearly mammogram, or what to do in the face of a public health scare (e.g. Zika). When making decisions involving scientific information, individuals must often grapple with imperfect or limited evidence. Agencies such as the Cochrane Collaboration and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality have developed methodologies for systematically assessing risk of bias in medical research (Barkhordarian et al., 2013). However, comparatively little is known about the ability of nonscientists to assess imperfect scientific information and integrate it into their decision-making. Building on research in cognitive developmental psychology and behavioral decision research, we have developed and validated an individual difference measure of scientific reasoning skills, defined as the skills needed to evaluate scientific findings in terms of the factors that determine their quality (see Drummond & Fischhoff, 2015). Our results suggest that scientific reasoning ability is distinct from education, numeracy, and scientific knowledge, and that individuals with greater scientific reasoning skills are more likely to hold beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus on public health issues including vaccination. Moreover, participants with greater scientific reasoning skills perform better on tasks requiring them to analyze scientific information, including medical information (Woloshin & Schwartz, 2011). We discuss the implications of our findings for communicating limited or controversial scientific evidence to nonscientist audiences.

Presenter: Caitlin Drummond, Carnegie Mellon University

Caitlin DrummondCaitlin Drummond is a fifth year PhD student in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds B.A.s in Economics and English from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. She is advised by Dr. Baruch Fischhoff. Her research program focuses on how nonscientists understand and interpret scientific evidence, with particular emphasis on scientific controversies and the factors that predict acceptance and rejection of science.

9:45-10:30 - Saturday, June 18, 2016 - Henderson Room, Michigan League

A video of the presentation is available for viewing.

Presentation: Incidental Health Messages in Popular Culture

Individuals glean health information from everyday engagement with artefacts of popular culture, particularly those that tell stories. For example, exposure to depictions of substance use in movies predicts adolescents’ own later substance use, net other risk factors. These effects are at least partially accounted for by changes in cognitions about substance use in response to media representations that portray substance use as normal and desirable.

Presenter: Sonya Dal Cin, Department of Psychology and Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan

Sonya Dal CinSonya Dal Cin is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology, and Research Associate Professor in the Research Center for Group Dynamics in the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Her major research interest is the impact of stories on attitudes, beliefs, self-concept, and behaviors. Her work examines the processes of story-based belief change, the role of identification with characters, the impact that stories have on behavior, and how these effects might occur outside viewers' conscious awareness. Primarily interested in health-related outcomes, her research includes studies on how watching smoking and drinking in movies might influence viewers' own smoking and drinking behavior.

11:00-11:45 - Saturday, June 18, 2016 - Henderson Room, Michigan League

A video of the presentation and the slides are available for viewing.

Lessons for Effective Communication of Imprecise Uncertainty

Results of scientific studies and projections of models in various domains are inherently uncertain. Accurate communication of these uncertainties to the general public and to policy makers is critical. The language of uncertainty may itself be a source of confusion. Uncertainties can be communicated as precise values, as ranges, as phrases, or as a combination of phrases and numbers. Research has shown that people overwhelmingly prefer to communicate uncertainty using vague verbal terms because they are perceived to be more natural, and avoid using precise numerical values because they can imply a false sense of precision. Research shows that people’s interpretations of such phrases vary greatly. This under-appreciation of variability in people's intuitive understanding of phrases used to convey uncertainty can create "an illusion of communication" and undermine the quality of subsequent decisions. Given these problems many organizations have developed "standardized lexicons of uncertainty" – lists of terms associated with specific probabilities. I will review several recent studies that examined the effectiveness of such lists. The results document (1) The sub optimality of lexicons defined by committees compared to evidence-based counterparts; (2) Systematic differences in the perceptions of these communications in heterogeneous populations; and (3) The superiority of communication methods that combine verbal and numerical terms. I will outline several principles for improving the communication of uncertainty.

Presenter: David Budescu, Department of Psychology, Fordham University

David BudescuDavid Budescu is the Anne Anastasi Professor of Psychometrics and Quantitative Psychology at Fordham University. He received his MA and PhD in Quantitative Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He held tenured positions at the University of Illinois and the University of Haifa, and visiting positions at Carnegie Mellon University, University of Gothenburg, the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, and the Israel Institute of Technology. His research is in the areas of human judgment, individual and group decision making under uncertainty and with incomplete and vague information, and statistics for the behavioral and social sciences.

11:45-12:30 - Saturday, June 18, 2016 - Henderson Room, Michigan League

This presentation was not live-streamed.

Institutional Biases in the Dissemination of Disease Estimates and Research Results

Understanding biases in the perception of public health information at the individual level, including the perceptions of medical practitioners, health care consumers, and members of the public, is essential to improving the communication and comprehension of public health information for non-academic audiences. But misrepresentations of public health information can potentially begin further up the causal chain of information dissemination. That is, in addition to and in interaction with individual perceptual biases, a range of institutions can present information in ways that make individuals more or less likely to hold views consistent with the true state of the world and current medical knowledge. There are a range of results from political science, economics, management, psychology, and medical research that address the mechanisms by which informationally advantaged institutions (e.g. NIH, FDA, CDC, Congress, the White House) might disseminate health information in a) ways that are themselves biased, b) ways that might induce biased reporting by mediating institutions like the press, political leaders, and interest groups, or c) ways that might induce biased perceptions by individuals. I review this research here and offer a typology of potential mechanisms and solutions, focusing on the dissemination of information about disease estimates and research results. Drawing on these results, I offer a series of recommendations aimed to reduce the probability that the official dissemination of public health information distorts public perceptions in ways that lead to suboptimal medical decision-making. These recommendations focus on both what information agencies disseminate and how they disseminate it.

Presenter: Herschel Nachlis, Department of Government, Dartmouth College

Herschel NachlisHerschel Nachlis is Research Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, and Assistant Professor of Government (on leave) at Franklin & Marshall College. He studies and teaches American politics and public law, focusing on health and social policy. His primary area of current research examines the political development of mental health policy in the United States and variation in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. Other areas of ongoing research include the politics of health and disease generally, pharmaceutical regulation, medical research policy, diversity and representation in bureaucratic institutions, constitutional development and judicial policymaking, and American political development.

Additional Invited Participants

Adam Berinsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Sarah Dick, JPA Health Communications
Emily Ho, Fordham University
Anna Kirkland, University of Michigan
Adam S. Levine, Cornell University

Conference Organizing Committee

Ken Kollman, University of Michigan
Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan
Michael Traugott, University of Michigan
Nicholas Valentino, University of Michigan