By Emma Young
Scientists are increasingly encouraged to communicate directly with non-experts, through newspaper and TV interviews, science festivals, online videos, and other channels. But the quality of their research or ideas alone is not enough to guarantee interest or support, suggests a series of new studies in PNAS. The way the general public responds is also influenced by the scientist’s facial appearance, an important finding, say the researchers, because the public communication of scientific findings shapes beliefs, opinion and policy.
To probe the potential impact of first impressions, the researchers, led by William Skylark at the University of Cambridge, first obtained photographs of the faces of hundreds of male and female scientists, chosen at random from physics, genetics/human genetics and biological sciences departments of US and UK universities.
One group of participants then rated these faces on a variety of social traits, relating to competence, sociability and morality (essentially, trustworthiness), as well as on attractiveness and perceived age. Other groups indicated how interested they would be in finding out more about each scientist’s research or how much the person looked like someone who conducts accurate and important research (the extent to which they looked like a “good scientist”).
The participants were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were physically attractive and who appeared competent and trustworthy (though sociability judgements had little effect). When it came to judgements of the quality of these scientists’ work, however, while apparent trustworthiness and competency were again important, those scientists who’d ranked lower for physical attractiveness and sociability generally got better scores.
A further study with a different group of volunteers found that they rated research (described in an apparent magazine article) as being of higher quality when it was paired with a photo of a scientist who’d previously received a high “good-scientist” rating, compared with research paired with a photo of a scientist with a lower “good scientist” rating. (In fact, the scientists in the photos were not responsible for the work described in the articles.)
The findings show that the very traits, as judged from appearance, that can engage the general public in a scientist’s work are distinct from – and even opposite to – the traits that encourage the belief that the scientist does high-quality work.
“Notably, these sociocognitive traits ‘trumped’ the influence of age, gender, and ethnicity – variables that are the primary focus of much work on stereotypes and bias, implying an underlying source of influence that has received little attention public discourse or academic studies of scientist stereotypes,” the researchers wrote.
The level of bias uncovered in this new research could have significant real-world implications. For example, in another of the new studies participants showed a preference for “interesting-looking” scientists when choosing which research videos they’d like to watch – a bias that would amount to tens or hundreds of thousands of extra views, the researchers noted. “Indeed the effect was particularly strong for video communications, and the rising use of video media such as TED talks means that face-based judgements are likely to play an increasing role in shaping the public’s engagement with scientific research,” Skylark and his colleagues wrote.
Because effective communication is increasingly important to scientists’ career progression, they argued, face-based biases may influence not just which scientists’ work gains popularity or acceptance among the public, but even which research is actually conducted, and by whom.
The new findings add to past research on superficial factors, such as the use of jargon and imagery, and clarity in expression, that can influence whether a piece of scientific work is widely discussed and believed, or ignored and discredited.
Image: Astronomer Amy Mainzer (who did not feature in the new research, to our knowledge) speaks onstage during the ‘Ready Jet Go!’ press conference as part of the PBS portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at Langham Hotel on January 19, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)