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Health Facts Aren’t Enough. Should Persuasion Become a Priority?

This helps explain in part why efforts to educate the public often fail. In 2003, researchers examined how communication strategies on G.M.O.s — intended to help the public see that their beliefs did not align with experts — wound up backfiring. All the efforts, in the end, made consumers less likely to choose G.M.O. foods.

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor and contributor to The Upshot, has been a co-author on a number of papers with similar findings. In a 2013 study in Medical Care, he helped show that attempting to provide corrective information to voters about death panels wound up increasing their belief in them among politically knowledgeable supporters of Sarah Palin.

In a 2014 study in Pediatrics, he helped show that a variety of interventions intended to convince parents that vaccines didn’t cause autism led to even fewer concerned parents saying they’d vaccinate their children. A 2015 study published in Vaccine showed that giving corrective information about the flu vaccine led patients most concerned about side effects to be less likely to get the vaccine.

A great deal of science communication still relies on the “knowledge deficit model,” an idea that the lack of support for good policies, and good science, merely reflects a lack of scientific information.

But experts have been giving information about things like the overuse of low-value care for years, to little effect. A recent study looked at how doctors behaved when they were also patients. They were just as likely to engage in the use of low-value medical care, and just as unlikely to stick to their chronic disease medication regimens, as the general public.

In 2016, a number of researchers argued in an essay that those in the sciences needed to realize that the public may not process information in the same way they do. Scientists need to be formally trained in communication skills, they said, and they also need to realize that the knowledge deficit model makes for easy policy, but not necessarily good results.

It seems important to engage the public more, and earn their trust through continued, more personal interaction, using many different platforms and technologies. Dropping knowledge from on high — which is still the modus operandi for most scientists — doesn’t work.

When areas of science are contentious, it’s clear that “data” aren’t enough. Bombarding people them with more information about studies isn’t helping. How the information contained in them is disseminated and discussed may be much more important.

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