- Science is one of the fundamental building blocks of modern societies, and though some science topics are easily accepted by public audiences, others generate intense social controversy by challenging beliefs that are fundamental to a person’s, or group’s, identity. The Theory of Evolution is one of these “hot-button” issues, as it often contradicts personal beliefs that are internalized as identity from an early age, and carry with them strong group and social identity components. Unintentional misunderstandings and intentional misinformation plague this topic, and communication efforts to combat this are heavily influenced by the deficit model of education, or the idea that if *group* knew more about *topic* they would be better able to understand, make informed decisions, and end controversy. However, non-scientists build meaning in different ways than scientists, requiring that future communication efforts and strategies move past the idea of a deficit and instead consider the implications of interactional (discourse), personal (identity), and cultural influences on communication and meaning making in socially controversial science presented in science museums. The lenses through which I investigate these influences in this dissertation are framing, voice and dialogicality, the Interactional Social Ecology of Identity, and the notion of cultural models, and the venue is the Explore Evolution exhibit currently displayed in three museums.
An in-depth analysis of the three main factors influencing communication, interactional, personal, and cultural, was undertaken for this research. First, a discourse analysis was performed of the Explore Evolution exhibit, measuring modality, framing, dialogicality, and framing in order to illustrate how information on evolution on the museum side of the discourse was constructed, and what this means for the communication effort. Second, a conceptual model of identity theory was constructed and used to measure the prominence hierarchy of the situational identities for visitors to the Explore Evolution exhibit using a novel technique. Finally, surveys and interviews with exhibit visitors were used to start building the cultural models that influence science, museums, science in museums, and socially controversial science topics. These three components were used to propose a reconceptualization of how science communication is approached at every level.