Communicating science to parents

Michigan State University's Sheril Kirshenbaum and Alison Bernstein, both mothers, explain the challenges of finding and sharing accurate, reliable scientific information on raising children.

A young girl and her mother do a science experiment together
Navigating logic and emotion is one of the many challenges science communicators face when talking about parenting.

Being a parent is not easy.

And sorting through all of the misinformation and conflicting opinions about how to raise children only makes it harder.

“When you have kids, you really want to make sure that you’re able to make the best decisions for their health, safety and well-being as possible,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, academic specialist with Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch’s Food@MSU initiative, and a mother of two. “We’re inundated with so much information, and often misinformation, about what they should be eating, how they should be sleeping and an array of other topics.”

It doesn’t stop with the internet. Other sources, such as TV shows, books and magazines, add to the noise and confusion.

“You have friends who all practice different techniques and strategies, and believe different things,” Kirshenbaum said. “It’s really difficult to figure out what you should be doing, especially for a first-time parent.”

Assessing fear and risk

Alison Bernstein is an assistant professor of translational science and molecular medicine in the MSU College of Human Medicine. She is also a mother of two and a founding member of SciMoms, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes parenting techniques rooted in scientific evidence.

Her parenting journey began in late 2007, when she became pregnant with her first child. It was around the time when the organic foods movement started to gain momentum. Bernstein recalls feeling overwhelmed and anxious about exposing her newborn daughter to pesticides.

“I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without my list, ‘Was this ok to eat?’” she said. “If I go back in my Google drive, I have these crazy spreadsheets and documents where I made notes about which things were OK and which things were bad. It was intense.”

While the anxiety continued for a few years following her daughter’s birth in 2008, Bernstein’s outlook began to change as a postdoc at Emory University working on pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s.

“That started this slow process of actually understanding the science and realizing that I was really causing myself a lot of unnecessary stress,” she said. “The stress alone was probably more damaging to my health and my well-being, than any of the things I was worrying about.”

Accepting emotions as a factor

Bernstein’s story shows that even scientists can sometimes struggle with the idea of logic and reason versus the influence of emotion. She encourages scientists to take into account emotions when listening to a viewpoint that might not be scientifically rational.

“Emotions are part of our decisions,” she said. “Sometimes, science communicators and scientists say things like, ‘Ignore your emotions and just focus on the evidence and anecdotes aren’t data.’ I mean, they aren’t data, but they are important to that person’s personal experience and how they experience the world.”

Kirshenbaum said scientists need to do more than just share their knowledge.

“I think it’s really easy, coming from the science community, to think about things in what’s called a deficit model: ‘If we just give people information, they’re going to make better decisions,’” she said. “There’s a lot of research to show why that just doesn’t work. We don’t make our choices based on facts and logic all the time. It’s about how something makes us feel.”

Emotions also come into play among parent friendships. Kirshenbaum recalls her experience living in Austin, Texas, where the nonmedical exemptions for vaccination rates for children are among the highest in the nation, despite research stating vaccinations are safe. Her two sons both received their shots, but many of the children they played with didn’t.

“You don’t want to alienate the community of support that you have as a new parent, but with some of these issues, like health and safety, you don’t want to be lecturing your friends, especially new friends, on what they should be doing,” said Kirshenbaum, who co-authored the book “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.” “It’s a lot more challenging than dealing with a public science literacy conversation.”

Finding reliable information

One way to promote informed parenting is to seek out reputable, trustworthy sources. This is easier said than done, given the volume of sensationalized content and clickbait in daily news and social media feeds.

“It’s not that people don’t have access to the information. It’s that we live in this world where certain types of news are sensationalized,” said Bernstein, who wrote an article on finding reliable health information online for Detroit publication SEEN magazine in January 2019. “We have so much information, and it’s really hard to know what is good information and what is bad information.”

An advocate for open access to scientific journals, Kirshenbaum said she realizes most parents won’t actively seek out an abstract online.

She recommends reaching out to university professors and researchers for information. Academic scientists are consistently viewed as the most trusted group of scientists when it comes to health and safety of food. The MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, which Kirshenbaum co-directs, found that 50–60 percent of Americans say they trust academic scientists.

“A lot of the time scientists want to be more engaged with their community, but don’t really know how to start those conversations,” said Kirshenbaum. “The first resource would be to look at who’s available where you are. If there’s nobody where you are, you can really access anyone across the U.S., or around the world, with today’s technology.”

Did you find this article useful?