Communicating Science, Fast and Slow: A Strategy for Being Heard

Communicating Science, Fast and Slow: A Strategy for Being Heard

As published in Chemistry Today, vol. 39, issue 1, Jan/Feb 2021

You want to communicate your latest scientific findings, and you know the world needs to hear them. But you do not have to look far to see examples of science becoming politicized and sound information being disregarded. Therefore, you wonder if there is a better path to success in science communication.

Good news: there is! And you have just seen a clue to what it is. But before we propose a solution, let us consider the scope of the problem. According to one recent study, only about half the adults in the USA report trusting science “a lot.” (1) Evidence of this weak level of trust can be seen in the politicization of advice for avoiding the coronavirus pandemic.

While it is true that conveying scientific concepts to non-scientists is difficult, we cannot be too quick to blame lay people. This author has seen many scientists fail to connect with scientific audiences, as well. What is needed is a way to overcome the mental barriers that impede the absorption of novel information.

One way to do that is to learn from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the two ways we tend to process novel information. (2) He uses the names System One and System Two to describe the two processes. System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System Two is slower, more deliberative, and analytical. The two modes coexist in the brain, often dividing tasks according to their respective strengths—but not always.

Communicating Science, Fast and Slow: A Strategy for Being Heard


Our brains have evolved to be sensitive to changes in our environment that might signal danger. System One improves our odds of survival by constantly scanning our environment and asking, “Is everything okay? Am I comfortable with the present situation?”

System Two is what allows us to go beyond merely reacting. System Two can hold conflicting ideas in mind while it weighs evidence. “Which is the greater threat? That lion over there, or the cliff I might fall off if I run the other way?”

But the two systems have weaknesses. System One is prone to jumping to conclusions based on an approximate understanding of a situation. And System Two requires effort. Therefore, it is content to minimize effort most of the time and leave decision-making to System One—unless one’s brain recognizes the need to wake up System Two and take a more analytical approach.

Communicating Science, Fast and Slow: A Strategy for Being Heard


What happens when a scientist tries to present deliberative, logical evidence to a listener who is making a fast, intuitive decision about whether to accept the speaker as a reliable source? This is where miscommunication often starts, in that fundamental disconnect between ways of processing information. The scientist has weighed the evidence using System Two, which allowed him or her to hold conflicting ideas in mind until the evidence made one choice the clear favorite. But to expect his or her audience to do the same thing at the outset—while System One is still scanning the environment—is to require too much of a processing leap.

Communicating Science, Fast and Slow: A Strategy for Being HeardFortunately, Kahneman suggests a way past this dilemma when he introduces the idea of cognitive ease. This is what System One craves, for it wants to create a coherent narrative that concludes, “My environment does not present a threat at the moment.” Easily digested information that has a ring of familiarity creates a sense of cognitive ease. (Sadly, we need not look far to find examples of bad actors who know how to abuse this fact by supplying false, yet easily grasped, narratives. Yet that topic is beyond the scope of this article.)

But this poses a dilemma. Having put System One at ease, now the challenge lies in activating System Two at the appropriate time. Recall that engaging System Two requires effort, which is why the brain is content to let it sleep until its services are required.

For a strategy to meet this challenge, we turn to the work of another thought leader. Randy Olson is a marine biologist who left the academic world to move to California and become a filmmaker. In so doing, he discovered that Hollywood knows much that scientists need to know about engaging audiences. In his 2015 book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, Olson describes a simple, yet powerful, narrative tool that is easy to employ in any communication situation. (3) Consider the following:

You want to reach your audience and you want to make a difference to them. But now you know about their two different thought processes. Therefore, you need to use techniques that engage both processes at the appropriate time.

Did you notice the connecting words in that paragraph? “And…but…therefore.” Those three words lie at the heart of what Olson calls the ABT structure. (For another example, return the opening paragraph of this article.)

Consider how this dovetails with Kahneman’s findings. First, we quickly put System One at ease by connecting a couple of thoughts that are already known and familiar: “You want to reach your audience and you want to make a difference to them.” Then there is a contradiction, signaled by the word but: “But now you know about their two different thought processes.” Here we have two conflicting thoughts being held in mind at the same time—clearly a job for System Two. What does the newly awakened System Two do? It follows the direction suggested by the word therefore: “Therefore, you need to use techniques that engage both processes at the appropriate time.”

That is one example of the ABT structure. Contrast it with what most people do when telling a story. “This happened…and then this happened…and then this happened.” Olson calls this the “And, and, and” (AAA) pattern. There is no structure. There is no tension. One need not look far to see this at work in scientific writing:

“We found this challenge, and we thought of trying this technique, and this was our procedure, and here are our results…”

Rarely is any of the tension that drove the research revealed in a paper or a typical presentation. But why does tension matter? Tension sustains attention. That is why the ABT structure is so useful. It creates just the right amount of narrative tension to make the story interesting. After putting System One at ease, the ABT structure intentionally activates System Two, which is able to navigate the tension between potentially conflicting ideas.

When you do this, your audience will want your solution before they even know what it is.

Consider some additional examples of the ABT structure, beginning with one from pharmaceutical science:

“Thousands of people die with cancer each year, and there are molecules that we know can be effective against a particular type of tumor. But tumors are reluctant to take up the drugs that can destroy them. Therefore, we have been working to determine the optimal size of nanoparticle for delivering that drug to the tumor.”

Here is another:

“Many drugs are available for treating rheumatoid arthritis pain, and patients have reasonably good responses to therapy, but this often comes with severe side effects; therefore, we are looking for new approaches to treatment.”

Consider how someone might market their services:

“Many patients are suffering, and you’ve developed a promising new drug, and you want to get your drug to market. But clinical trials are complicated, and regulations are complex. Therefore, you need to work with a company like ours that has a proven track record of helping companies like yours bring their drugs to market.”

A side note: many marketers already know the power of ABT, so watch for it in their messages.

Every time you employ the ABT structure, you are creating the “just right” amount of tension that will engage your audience, put their System One at ease, and direct their higher-level thinking to your central claim or evidence.

You want to tell people about your work, and you want them to pay attention. But now you know the biases that are working against you. Therefore, you need to use the ABT structure to frame your message. When you do, you may contribute not only to an understanding of your message, but to greater trust of science in general.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. (last checked on Dec. 17, 2020)
  2. Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, USA (2011)
  3. Olson, Randy: Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA (2015)

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