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Ambassadors for Science

Last year my wife and I bought our first home, in a Massachusetts town north of Boston. When we moved to the town, we had no friends in the area or family members. If we were going to navigate the complexities of buying a home in an ultracompetitive and unfamiliar housing market, I knew that I was going to have to lean on a reliable source of advice. I needed to find what researchers who study social influence call an opinion-leader. As numerous studies have explored, opinion-leaders rarely hold formal positions of authority and instead prove influential by way of their greater attention to the news or a specialized topic, the knowledge they acquire, their strength of personality, and their experience in serving as a central go-between for shared information among their large network of friends and acquaintances (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

Luckily, soon after we moved to town, I met a key local opinion-leader in the form of our financial advisor. A native of the area with a gregarious personality, over several decades he had built up a diverse network of contacts. As it turns out, his advice on choosing a real estate agent and local bank to work with proved critical to our home buying process.

As familiar as this process of community networking might sound, until only very recently science communication– related initiatives have ignored opinion-leaders. Instead of defining communication as a networked process, science communication has traditionally been conceptualized as a one-way process of translation from experts directly to the public via lectures, media appearances, or popular books and articles. If there were an intermediary, science journalists were the go-betweens. This model of communication has always been flawed, but in today’s polarized political culture and fragmented media system, such traditional approaches are likely to have limited reach and influence.

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Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2018
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