Information has become widely available to the majority of people over the last decade. With that availability, comes widely available misinformation.
Holli Leggette, Ph.D., associate professor at Texas A&M University and director of the Science Communications Lab, currently researches new ways for scientists and communicators to better relay information to their target audiences. Although the term is information literacy, Leggette said she views her research not just as literacy, but as a process of increasing information engagement.
“For me, I don't just want people to understand something, I want them to engage with that,” Leggette said. “I don't believe that consumers necessarily would have a hard time understanding and engaging with information if we delivered it in a way that they wanted to get information and use that information.”
Instead of just regurgitating statistics and scientific information to the masses, Leggette said effective communication should allow all types of individuals to engage with each message.
“We just spit science instead of putting it in a way that's relevant to our audience and deliver it in a way that engages them,” Leggette said. “It must be something they believe in and something they buy into, so they have some ownership of that.”
Leggette said she focuses her work on helping scientists. From the scientist working in the lab to the scientist who is producing the nation’s food to the aspiring scientist.
“I say sciences broadly because that may be an undergraduate student in my class or the undergraduate students taking my modules, the faculty members that I work with, or the producers,” Leggette said. “So, helping them to communicate their messages more effectively in a way that resonates with the public is important. I want the scientist to say, ‘you know what, I not only want to understand that, but I want to be engaged in that.’”
Now, more than ever, it is important for science communicators to effectively disseminate credible information on platforms where students and the public want to engage with it.
“The primary reason engagement is so important is there's a lot of misconceptions and misinformation,” Leggette said. “It's a bigger deal now than it ever has been. The reason for that is because of the massive amounts of data, the massive amounts of information, the mass news articles that are coming out to people … there's information everywhere.”
An important platform in this mass spread of communication is social media. Although credible sources are using social media, students and society need to be able to use information literacy to fact-check or sift through misinformation.
“[On] social media, everybody has that citizen journalism platform,” Leggette said. “Oftentimes, people don't fact check that. That's why I think it's important for students to take information literacy and why there's been a huge push for information literacy.”
Leggette said the use of social media and the mass communication of information will only increase as society demands more information. Thus, scientists need to position themselves to be credible sources of information in times of information need and science communicators need to encourage the public to seek credible information and look at both sides of every story when making an informed decision.
“I think that for us as educators and as researchers, as science communicators, it's important for us to tell people [that] we need to look at both sides,” Leggette said. “We do not just need to be more informed but we need to be more informed with accurate information that’s based on evidence and not feelings and emotions.”
Leggette’s work has been funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention, and Texas A&M University. To find out more information about Leggette’s Science Communications Lab and her science communications curriculum, visit https://scicomm.tamu.edu/.