“Easy? Nah!” — Some Science Communication Perspectives from India

“Easy? Nah!” — Some Science Communication Perspectives from India

Apeksha Srivastava

Understanding audience

Understanding audience

What is science communication? It broadly involves raising awareness and increasing people’s interest in scientific ideas, methods, knowledge, and issues pertaining to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Recently, the domain has also extended to include aspects of humanities and social sciences. This dissemination of scientific information should be dejargonized (adequately explaining difficult-to-use technical terms) so that the audiences can easily understand it. Further, the information should be objective and neutral. However, is that really the case?  

Kearns (2021), in a chapter from her book, Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Management, discusses how concepts like “objectivity” and “neutrality” of information, idealized in science, are now being debated. She highlights that science and its communication are “done by human beings with complex subjectivities.” Through interactions with people since 2021, as a part of my research work, I observed some of these complexities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Vasco Matos Trigo, a science journalist from Portugal, helped me better interpret some of them. This article attempts to highlight the same and emphasize that the process of science communication is not at all easy and demands careful consideration.

Revealing Inequalities in Society 

Positionality refers to how social position and power differences shape societal identities. Otherness refers to people being broadly classified into in-group and out-group. The in-group members treat the out-group members as being different in some way and, thus, not belonging with them. The latter exists only due to its opposition to the in-group and identity based on stigmatizing stereotypes. 

Some house-helpers, gardeners, and sweepers discussed how the pandemic has (re-)revealed some deeply pervasive inequalities prevailing in society: 

A1: “We have questions about Corona. It would be great if some ‘educated’ people could talk to us about it in the language we understand. I feel hesitant and left out...” 

A2: “It will be beneficial to have ‘educated’ women who discuss certain issues with our women and girls… Another aspect is that I have encountered ‘rich’ people in some houses where I work who blame us for spreading Corona even when we do our best to follow the precautions.”

It is important to note that “listening” has been largely overlooked in science communication. In the aforementioned snippets, listening helps us observe the issues of positionality and otherness that disadvantage a group of people. Some sections of society are not receiving information in the form they need. Such realizations can encourage science communicators to spread awareness among people from the dominant in-group on tackling prejudices and complex power dynamics. Trust in science can be increased if its communication includes the concerns and insights of marginalized communities, such as moving beyond the traditional deficit model, which involves only a one-way flow of information, to the discussion mode and involving more women science communicators to discuss sensitive topics like sex education. 

Kearns (2021) mentions, “... who creates and disseminates knowledge, including the languages they use, affects not only what is considered valid but also who influences the questions that are asked and benefits resulting from knowledge.” Language can play a critical role in helping communicators better understand their own positionality and that of their audiences and adapt to new structures for presenting any information effectively to the audience. 

A3: “... Amitabh Bachchan Ji has given much information on coronavirus. We hear his announcement on our phones daily. But I do not remember any woman being a part of something like this.” 

Renowned actor Amitabh Bachchan was also the face of the Polio eradication campaign in the country. He fits a “certain profile” of mainstream science communicators: male, cis-gendered (gender identity corresponds to sex assigned at birth), and heterosexual (sexually/romantically attracted to individuals of the opposite sex). This profile is exclusive and excludes, for example, other genders, which may be exactly what a particular target audience is more comfortable with. Such conversations can provide insights into deeper questions. For example, why does science communication often reach only highly educated and science-literate audiences? How can underserved audiences be reached and engaged? Understanding such aspects can play a crucial role in finding better ways to tackle the global inequality issue that hinders effective science communication.


A4: “I have done my education in English medium. I am pretty comfortable with this language and use it often during work. However, a sentence in Hindi just hits differently! I feel more connected with it. I think that part of the reason is my upbringing at home and my interactions with friends and relatives, which were always in Hindi.” 

These views are with respect to kapoor (camphor) and whether it helps treat COVID-19 in any way. Another person from Delhi had similar views on gaay ka gobar (cow dung). Discussions with these people highlighted that exposure to awareness messages in Hindi has a more profound and thought-provoking effect on them. If a particular language is dominant in the context of establishing meaning, that language becomes integral to the structure of meaning and usage processes. Immersion refers to experiencing a language in familiar surroundings and authentic everyday contexts. It is reasonable for a language learned during childhood to trigger a diverse range of emotions. The discussant A4 made it clear that although she is proficient in English, it was not an active part of her childhood experiences. She used it only in academic and professional environments. Moreover, the same word can elicit different emotional reactions depending on people’s life experiences, personalities, and cultural backgrounds.  

In contrast, a second language may allow the user to experience more distance from negative emotions. Agarwal et al. (2017) analyzed some tweets from India. They found that Hindi was the preferred (dominant) language when swearing or cursing, wherein the purpose was to express strong emotions such as anger and frustration. Such cases highlight the importance of language in effective science communication. Communicators must learn to understand when to use native versus non-native language based on the preferences and needs of their audiences. In some situations, a combination of the two, i.e., code-switching, can be more advantageous. 


Some people from a village in Uttar Pradesh voiced their concerns regarding using taboo words in their native language. 

A5: “I did not know there is a possibility of spreading COVID-19 through establishing sexual relations (yaun sambandh). We cannot discuss it openly at home or in the neighborhood. … I feel that the word ‘sex’ sounds less strange to hear and speak about.”

The aforementioned snippet suggests that audiences may better accept code-switching in some situations. Here, code-switching refers to using the English word “sex” in an otherwise Hindi language sentence. Marian and Kaushanskaya (2008) stated that a second language may allow the user to experience more distance from the emotional experiences associated with certain words. People may be more comfortable using a non-native language when discussing embarrassing or aversive topics as it may be helpful to “tolerate the unpleasant mood.” 

Another use of code-switching compensates for a language difficulty, aiding in a better understanding of a word or concept. Dey & Fung (2014) reported that Hindi speakers prefer code-switching when the other language word, like English, is easier to use and conceptually grasp and/or overcomes the absence of a well-known or equivalent Hindi word. It is why people may not prefer the Hindi counterparts of words like virus (vishaanu), mask (mukhaavaran), oxygen (praanvaayu), precaution (poorvopaaya), and booster doses (anuvardhak maatraayein). Words like germs, bacteria, and viruses induce a sense of urgency as people have heard them from parents, teachers, and doctors. However, they generally do not feel the “same connection” when exposed to their corresponding Hindi words. 

Making the “Right” Choice 

There is this perception that translating science communication content from one language to another does not require much effort. One only needs a translating tool, after all! However, there are several hurdles, such as content creation and arrangement, choice of language, and type of target audience, to name a few. The personality of the communicator is also a crucial component. Two people with different personalities may come up with different translations of the same content in a language, such as regarding its emotional element and how they approach and organize the information (e.g., different starting points).  

It may be a better idea for the person accessing the content to choose the language they prefer to consume some information (e.g., native, non-native, or code-switching). Short surveys can help here. The responses can be interpreted using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Language should be used to make people “think about” science and “think for” themselves. 

Another important component is choosing the right science communicator for a target audience. Different audiences have different needs. A research expert might be the perfect communicator for college students from a science discipline, but they might not have the time needed for a back-and-forth discussion with people from a village. The expert may also not be as comfortable with the audience’s preferred language of communication. The same expert might also not be a good fit for children studying in classes 6th to 8th. There is a difference between simplifying the content in a given language for a more accessible audience understanding and dumbing it down (oversimplification), which is generally unacceptable. As Costa puts it, there is a need for “more than one kind of qualified explainer: One explainer cannot fit all roles and cannot be trained in all roles.” 

How do people perceive a science communicator in terms of their legitimacy and the message being conveyed, depending on the language used? Do audiences attach the same bias to politically charged topics such as climate change or COVID-19 vaccination when communicated in native versus non-native language or code-switching? — Questions like these are required to pave the way for deeper discussions.

Earlier, science was considered something that came up with definite solutions. Since COVID-19, it has become important for people to understand that the nature of science is dynamic; science is not a “truth system” but a reasonably logical explanation of the available evidence, which is subject to verification and ready to be discarded in the light of new evidence. Multiple layers of interactions are at work, consisting of emotions, meanings, and associated inequalities, among other aspects, adding to the complexity of effective science communication. Effective science communication involves neither objective nor neutral information because it includes “human beings with complex subjectivities” (Kearns, 2021). Different people may interpret and craft a piece of information differently, depending on their personality, biases, and beliefs. Rather than leaning towards being universal, communicating science should involve more localized efforts. Open-ended conversations and recognizing uncertainty may encourage people to move past persuasion and feel “connected” with communicators/scientists, bringing them closer to being comfortable with science. Healthy allocentrism, which involves one’s interest centered on others, instead of egocentrism (self-centeredness), in science communication may prepare us better to tackle challenges in the future. We should be concerned with not just the public’s understanding of science but also a science-based understanding of the public. 

Edited by: Neha Kumari

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