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The Power of Language Style and Information Source in Science Communication

By: Inas Essa

Successfully delivering a message and conveying ideas are what we seek from any conversation, debate, or presentation. Easier said than done; many factors play a key role in determining the real outcomes of those situations, whether general or more specialized, like when it comes to science and health. It is not just picking persuasive words to convince the audience or using engaging methods.

While the urgency and need of communicating science have grown recently, the importance of communicating it successfully has grown as well. The language of science is so specific and cannot be easily understood by the general public; it requires some degree of simplification, which is a mission that experts and science communicators work on relentlessly.

To achieve this, they first should know what could be the main aspects the general public has in mind while listening to experts’ claims and science communicators’ information?

What determines a message's efficacy?

Earlier research has shown that the public makes their decisions in two ways; the first is evaluating the new claim by asking themselves whether it is compatible with their prior knowledge of this matter or not. The second is asking themselves whether the source of this claim is trustworthy or not. Therefore, trustworthiness and credibility have been key for the public in making their decisions towards the messages they receive.

Keeping this in mind, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Münster, Germany, studied how the language style and the communicator’s professional affiliation affect the trustworthiness and credibility in scientific debates and communicating science.

They highlighted an area that is perhaps not widely spread in science compared to other domains, but should not be overlooked. This is using aggressive language by science communicators in scientific debates in trying to articulate their claims and convince the audience.



The Impact of Style

Results showed that using aggressive rather than neutral language affects trustworthiness negatively as the debater is perceived as more manipulative, less competent, less sincere, less benevolent, and less likable. Moreover, the information introduced was perceived as less credible, and participants had the impression that they learned less from the scientific debate. The only credibility measure that seemed not affected was the participants’ attitude toward the topic of the scientific debate.

Previous research has also investigated how the language style—positive vs. neutral and technical vs. everyday language—affects trustworthiness and credibility of the information and its source. Results showed that using positive language, like describing new findings as outstanding or a new drug as excellent, rather than using neutral language style, has a negative effect, as participants of the study rated the provided information as less credible, and the information source as more manipulative, less benevolent, and less sincere. That is because this kind of language is more likely associated with commercials the main purpose of which is persuading the audience and increasing sales.

Regarding whether using technical terms and language style results in more trustworthiness compared to everyday language, researchers found that authors or communicators are considered more trustworthy and their information as more credible when they use everyday language. For example, using “heart attack” instead of “myocardial infarction”.



The Role of Professional Affiliation

The study also investigated how professional affiliation of the communicator or a person participating in a scientific debate could influence the trustworthiness and the credibility of his information. Researchers found that if the person was introduced as a lobbyist in comparison to being introduced as a scientist, they were perceived as less trustworthy, more manipulative, less sincere, less benevolent, and less likable; yet, the person’s professional affiliation did not affect the credibility of his information.


The Formula of a Successful Message

The findings of this study seem to be of high importance for several professions, as it highlights how information seekers interact with the information introduced to them, not only those related to science. Additionally, how the way this information is introduced and who introduces it is included in the whole process of communication.

Added to the mentioned measures of determining messages' and science communicators' credibility and trustworthiness, there are more factors for science communicators to consider as well. These include articulating the issue they want to address clearly and why it matters, as well as potential solutions and benefits using jargon-free language to avoid ambiguity. Finally, using analogies for more effective messages, as they have an undeniable role in creating engagement and helping in explaining phenomena that could be hard to conceptualize.



More than a Piece of Information

Since spreading scientific knowledge has grown dramatically over the past years, which is a good sign in raising public awareness of scientific ideas and issues that relate to their day-to-day life, their health, and their children’s health as well, effective communication would beget better results and help build bridges to cross the expanded area of differences between different domains.



Explaining Scientific Ideas

Communicating Science