Science Book a Day Interviews Brian Southwell


Special thanks to Brian Southwell for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Social networks and popular understanding of science and health: Sharing Disparities

Brian Southwell, PhD, is an expert in communication and human behavior and a senior research scientist in the Center for Communication Science at RTI. His large-scale evaluation work has spanned behaviors and audiences, including cancer prevention and screening promotion efforts, national campaigns to discourage drug and tobacco use, efforts to bolster television news coverage of science, and various state-level campaigns. He also has studied public understanding of energy and related topics. – From RTI

#1 – What was the impetus for Social Networks?

The book stemmed from a sense of urgency I have felt in recent years as health and science professionals turn to “viral marketing” and “social media” as ostensible solutions for all of their communication needs. We increasingly know that although there are a number of examples of memes and ideas that diffuse quickly via social networks, many laudable ideas do not. Perhaps equally as importantly, not all people are equally well connected nor do all people exchange information readily with others. Many people, even in the digital age in which we live in which it seems information abounds, are disconnected from the types of conversations that populate others’ lives. I wanted to shed light on that notion and to bring together various literatures that can contribute to our thinking about the ways in which interpersonal connections shape popular understanding of science and health.

#2 – Your book looks at both social network online and in real space. What is important in the interactions between these two spaces?

I believe that much, but not all, of our interaction online is informed by our human nature offline. We do not need radical new theory to predict human behavior online, although the possibilities for anonymity and asynchronous exchanges do introduce important conditions for conversations. That is a point underscored by a special journal issue that my colleague Marco Yzer and I co-edited a few years ago. (See The interaction between the online world and “real space” also is a crucial one to note, although it does not receive as much attention as you might think and so I appreciate you raising the question. The offline world clearly informs the online world in important ways; we know, for example, that conventional news coverage via television and print outlets drives online searches. (See, for example: We also know that material that starts online can generate exchanges via cell phone or face-to-face conversation. Tracking and measuring links between the two realms introduces important research challenges, but I am hopeful that we will solve those dilemmas with new models for research soon.

#3 – What is the most common mistake that organisations make by relying on digital social media to disseminate information?

Perhaps the most important mistake organisations make is assuming that simply because material is posted on a website people will find it and share it with the world. We know that most people who are given the opportunity to share information broadly won’t do so; only a minority of people tend to spread messages wide and far. That was something we saw in the U.S. state of Minnesota, where we attempted to use a Refer a Friend program to promote cancer screening among the uninsured. (See Many people live busy lives and information sharing behavior is constrained by a variety of factors, including the nature of the relationships we hold with other people.

#4 – Who have you written this book for?

Perhaps appropriately given the focus of the book, I intended to stoke public dialogue about the nature of disparities with this book. I also wanted to speak to social scientists interested in understanding how and why people hold the perceptions and knowledge about science and health that they do; clearly, social networks play a role in societal diffusion. Scientists fascinated by public opinion are another audience. Graduate students and undergraduates who are intrigued by the intersection of public communication and scientific research also are groups I hoped to reach. Initial reaction to the book has been quite heartening and I look forward to additional discussion around the world on these issues in the near future.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Beyond this work, I also currently direct a new program at RTI International called Science in the Public Sphere. We are focused on the ways in which social science can inform informal education and public engagement efforts related to science and scientific research. We are doing work on energy and the environment, the regulation of prescription drug advertising, and health campaign evaluation, for example. One of the forthcoming projects for which I would welcome input and feedback is a special issue of theJournal of Communication on the vexing issue of misinformation. You can find a call for papers here: What should we do when misinformation about vaccines or climate change is presented in widely available media outlets, for example? We will be tackling questions like that in the special issue and welcome submission related to that idea now through September 2014.

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