Communication theory in Science, Health, Risk Communication

Outside of the disciplinary framework of communication scholarship that systematically examines communication processes, communicative phenomena, messages, and their effects in the realms of health, science, and risk, mostly originating from within the Communication discipline in the U.S. and published in the top-tier disciplinary and sub-disciplinary journals, claims to expertise in science, health, and risk communication are often made by outsiders to the discipline of Communication in other parts of the world. This certainly seems to be the case in significant proportions of science, health, and risk communication being done, taught, and launched across the Asia-Pacific. A quick survey of these new and market-driven forays into science, health, and risk communication would suggest they have little grounding in and little to do with the scientific study of communication. Reviewing these programs, I often come away disappointed, and more importantly, with the recognition that our discipline needs to do much more in establishing and implementing the standards for what gets to be taught and practiced in programs using the Communication tag strategically and who gets to teach, offer, and practice it.

Whereas these claims to science, health, and risk communication across the Asia-Pacific are mostly responses to the burgeoning demands in the market, to the easily available funding in these industries, and to the opportunities for generating revenues in these areas, they are often poorly configured as they are not grounded in Communication theory and mostly lack knowledge of the theoretical and empirical scholarship in science, health, and risk communication. In many instances, such claims to communication knowledge without even the basic undergraduate-level exposure to Communication theory and research are dangerous as they replicate pseudo-scientific beliefs about communication, and are much more likely to produce negative effects.

Imagine your sociologist making claims to quantum theory; the situation is somewhat like that in these burgeoning knowledge industries in science, health, and risk communication in the Asia Pacific. The complete lack of exposure to the discipline is coupled with the absence of disciplinary oversight into what is being taught and practiced.

That a PhD in Physics or Chemistry or Biology or Economics is not a Communication PhD is the first point that needs to be imbibed in these outsider overtures into Communication. Without the fundamental respect for the systematic study of communicative phenomena, messages, and processes, anchored in the Communication discipline, new programs and claims of science, health, and risk communication are more like the snake oil being sold as the cure to all ailments. When these programs have the branding of legitimacy, they do more harm than good, just like the snake oil packaged as medicinal cure for cancer. In this sense, organizations that develop and sell these programs ought to be held accountable.

As one example, let's consider the basic framework in which communication  is taught in a number of these "fake" programs and "fake" degrees in communication. The basic tenets of what is termed as the magic bullet theory, that communication messages can be injected into the minds of unsuspecting recipients, long debunked by decades of empirical evidence and theorization into persuasive communication, continue to hold sway for functionalist managers of science, health, and risk communication. Driven by the simplistic notion that messages can induce the actions desired by the payers of the messages, approaches to science, health, and risk communication replicate the quest for the right technique, once again without grounding in the fundamental principles of communication. To top it all, physicists and chemists and biologists, with some basic interpersonal skills and techniques of grooming (dressing properly, with an English accent, wearing make-up etc.), are positioned as the experts on communication skills.

Second, without disciplinary oversight, there is no accountability in these programs and practices to actually engaging with the discipline. Therefore, when talking to science, health, or risk communicators, I am struck by how clueless they are about communication journals, communication scholarship, and the body of empirical evidence. For some of them, there is not even the basic knowledge that there exists a discipline called Communication.

Third, being strategic and flushed with money, these "fake" programs often mark their claim to legitimacy by attaching themselves to a world renowned name in science, health, and risk communication. When we as experts in the area lend our names to such programs, once again, we do more harm than good as we legitimize the pseudo-science. I am therefore very careful in evaluating a program, its objectives, content, and intent before accepting to speak for or serve in a Visiting role for a program. Say for instance, a Chinese University launches a program in health communication in a medical school. My first task then is to do my research and see if there is a Communication or Communication-related school in the same University, and if the proposed program has engaged in a collaborative partnership with the disciplinary representatives within the University. Second, I look up if the program has trained Communication scholars and researchers housed in it. If the answer to the question is no, I am likely to respond in the negative regarding lending my name, with the polite suggestion that the program needs to first and foremost recruit Communication scholars if it wants to have anything to do with Communication. At this stage, I am also very clear that I am unlikely as a health communication scholar to lend my legitimacy to a program that is disengaged with the discipline.

Fourth, and this relates to the point about strategy and access to resources, "fake" programs find out that one quick way to build legitimacy is to co-brand with an US university (say, a well-known Communication department). What this tells me is that the program is well aware of the discipline and intentionally ignores it because it wants to profit without investing in the discipline. Such instances of intentional snake oil-salesmanship are all the more problematic as they deliberately choose to not engage the discipline. In such instances, it is the role and responsibility of established global Communication departments to do their homework before identifying and partnering with organizations in the Asia-Pacific, even if these organizations are flush with money. It is irresponsible to lend the credibility to such "fake" programs as it does more harm to the discipline than good, and contributes to its delegitimization.

The proliferation of these "fake" degrees and programs in science, health, and risk communication needs to be held accountable as in many instances, they cheat students and organizations, and in other instances, deliberately mislead them into believing they are getting a communication education when they are not. Moreover, they give a bad name to the discipline as they teach and reproduce practices that are not based on sound scientific knowledge of communication. Framed as soft skills, communication is pitched as something that can be taught and practiced by anybody, devoid of the theorizing and empiricism that goes into the scholarship that is generated in the discipline.

Therefore, there is a pivotal role for the discipline to use standards and metrics of accreditation globally to ensure that what is being taught in these areas of science, health, and risk is legitimate, is anchored in empiricism and theory, and most importantly, is embedded within the scientific anchors of the discipline. The International Communication Association @ICA and the National Communication Association @natcomm, much like the World Medical Association in the case of medical education, have leadership roles to play to ensure that what is offered as communication education is rooted in the best practices and knowledge frameworks of the discipline and is legitimate content drawn from the fundamental tenets of Communication science.


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