Exploring the effectiveness of using humor for communicating about science

Monday, July 1, 2019 to Thursday, June 30, 2022
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: 
Media and Technology, Websites, Mobile Apps, and Online Media
General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Scientists | Learning Researchers
Climate | Computing and information science | Health and medicine | Life science
University of Utah

Increasingly, scientists and their institutions are engaging with lay audiences via media. The emergence of social media has allowed scientists to engage with publics in novel ways. Social networking sites have fundamentally changed the modern media environment and, subsequently, media consumption habits. When asked where they primarily go to learn more about scientific issues, more than half of Americans point to the Internet. These online spaces offer many opportunities for scientists to play active roles in communicating and engaging directly with various publics. Additionally, the proposed research activities were inspired by a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that included a challenge to science communication researchers to determine better approaches for communicating science through social media platforms. Humor has been recommended as a method that scientists could use in communicating with publics; however, there is little empirical evidence that its use is effective. The researchers will explore the effectiveness of using humor for communicating about artificial intelligence, climate science and microbiomes.

The research questions are: How do lay audiences respond to messages about scientific issues on social media that use humor? What are scientists' views toward using humor in constructing social media messages? Can collaborations between science communication scholars and practitioners facilitate more effective practices? The research is grounded in the theory of planned behavior and framing as a theory of media effects. A public survey will collect and analyze data on Twitter messages with and without humor, the number of likes and re-tweets of each message, and their scientific content. Survey participants will be randomly assigned to one of twenty-four experimental conditions. The survey sample, matching recent U.S. Census Bureau data, will be obtained from opt-in panels provided by Qualtrics, an online market research company. The second component of the research will quantify the attitudes of scientists toward using humor to communicate with publics on social media. Data will be collected from a random sample of scientists and graduate students at R1 universities nationwide. Data will be analyzed using descriptive statistics and regression modeling.

The broader impacts of this project are twofold: findings from the research will be shared with science communication scholars and trainers advancing knowledge and practice; and an infographic (visual representation of findings) will be distributed to practitioners who participate in research-practice partnerships. It will provide a set of easily-referenced, evidence-based guidelines about the types of humor to which audiences respond positively on social media.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which supports innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of learning settings.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Sara YeoSara YeoPrincipal Investigator
Leona Yi-Fan SuLeona Yi-Fan SuCo-Principal Investigator
Michael CacciatoreMichael CacciatoreCo-Principal Investigator

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