Scientists know how to communicate with the public


I bet that most of us are steady consumers of science designed for the public. Books, magazines, newspaper, museum exhibits, radio, the occasional movie. The people who bring science to the masses are “science communicators.” (The phrase “science communication” is a newish one, and arguably better than “science writing,” as a variety of media involve more than just writing.)

Nearly everything I’ve seen in science communication shares a common denominator: scientists. Science communication doesn’t amount to much without researchers. Science is a human endeavor, and it’s rarely possible to tell a compelling story without directly involving the people who did the science. As restaurant servers bring food to the table and cooks typically stay in the kitchen, science communicators bring the work of scientists to the public while scientists typically focus on publishing scientific papers.

I interact with practitioners of this craft on the uncommon occasions when my research gets notice beyond the scientific community. (My university doesn’t send out press releases when my cooler papers come out, so the communicators need to find me.)

When I listen to what science communicators have said to us scientists, there are two items that are a heavy and steady drumbeat:

  1. It the duty of scientists to some of our time doing science communication, and it’s also in our interests.

  2. Most scientists don’t yet know how to communicate with the public.

I’m not so sure about #1. I have decided the second one is off mark, or at least so overgeneralized that it’s either wrong or useless.

It may or may not be our duty to share science with the public. (Yes, I know the arguments, reviewed here, for example.) Regardless, the last interest group that I’d look to for impartial advice on this matter would be science communicators. This would be like learning about the need for propane grilling from a propane grilling salesperson. It would be like learning about K-12 energy education from a workshop funded by a petroleum company (sadly, this is happening this week in my city). Of course science communicators think that science communication is important!

For most scientists, the division of labor between cooks and servers is just fine. (Of course there is nothing about being a technical scientist that disqualifies someone from being an effective public communicator.) There are many important things in this world, and some of us choose other things. (This next month, for what it’s worth, I’m talking to three community organizations, volunteering for an all-day science non-fair, and writing a blog post about my lab’s latest paper.) My funding agency places science communication as one potential component of broader effects, and I’m definitely listening to them. Scientists, if we want to engage the broader public, that’s great! But it would be disingenuous to tell you that it’s your duty. We all owe many things to society, and I’m cool with it if you choose, or don’t choose, to put science communication on your plate. I’m not going to be that person who is telling you what your duties are with respect to your own career. It’s up to us to forge our own trajectories and priorities.

So we all agree that scientists that don’t spend time on science communication either are, or are not, selfish bastards.

But, is it really true that most of us scientists aren’t capable of sharing our science effectively? I call BS on this canard.

If there happens to be a stray professional science communicator reading this, I imagine that I just induced a few chuckles and a shake of the head. Let me write some more to clarify.

Most of us are wholly capable of sharing our science with the public in an understandable and even interesting fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that, when interacting with the media, that we are always willing to play along. We might not want to provide the sound bite you’re looking for. We might be resisting a brief interpretation because we don’t have enough confidence that the science would end up correct in the final product. Nearly every time some scientific finding is presented to the public, it happens along with some form of a generalization. If you’re familiar with the genre of peer reviewing, you’ll know that scientists typically disdain generalizations.

How is it that we can resist the digestion of our work for public consumption? When someone claims that one of us “doesn’t know how to communicate with the public,” I propose that this overgeneralized diagnosis can almost always be broken down into two distinct categories which might apply.

  1. We don’t want to discuss our science in broad terms for the public because we feel that we are unqualified for the task. While the popular image of the arrogant know-it-all scientist plays well, most of us are driven by the fact that we don’t understand enough about our fields of expertise. We are resistant to analogies or general statements of findings in lay terminology because it involves a generalization from our very specific findings that may be unwarranted. And, if it is warranted, then it falls outside our expertise to comment on such a broad topic. While our experiments were designed to advance knowledge on some general topic, we feel that it is not up to us to make the decision that our findings are informative on that general topic in a way to be digested outside the scientific community.
  2. We actually aren’t doing an experiment that has any general relevance to the public at large. We actually are working on minutia that will not have any broad relationship to the scientific endeavor at large. We are having trouble making a generalization about its scientific importance because it lacks a broad scientific importance.

The prescription for diagnosis #1 is for us to become more arrogant and think that we are qualified to speak with the media about broader issues in science. For us to think that, as scientists sensu lato, we are able to speak broadly about scientific issues. Just as we teach about all kinds of scientific topics in the university classroom, we can interact with the media in the same way. And this is the kind of stuff that scientists who communicate with the public do all the time. They often talk about things outside the realm of their research training and expertise and get away with it. If we’re going to be doing science communication as practicing scientists, then we need to own the fact that we can talk about a whole bunch of scientific topics even though we’re not top experts in a subfield. For example, Richard Feynman once wrote a book chapter about ants. (I thought it was horrible way to illustrate his main point about doing amateur science, actually.)

The prescription for diagnosis #2 is to be a better scientist. If you’re conducting an experiment that, at its roots, lacks a purpose that can be explained to a general audience, then what is the science really work? I can explain that I work on really obscure stuff (the community ecology of litter-dwelling ants, how odors affect nest movements of ants, and how is it that some colonies of ants control the production of different kinds of ants, and how much sunlight and leaf litter ants like, for starters). But I’m working on this obscure stuff to build to a generalized understanding of biodiversity, the role of predators in the evolution of defensive behavior, how ecology and evolution result in optimized allocation patterns, and responses to climate change. I am sometimes reluctant to claim that my results can be generalized to entire fields (I need to get more arrogant in that respect), but I recognize the fact that my work is designed to ask these broad questions. If you don’t have these broad questions in mind while running the experiment, I recommend a sabbatical and a visit to the drawing board. I don’t know how often this phenomenon happens, but I have met some scientists who, when asked for the broadest possible application of their work, can only talk about the effect on a subfield of a subfield that would only influence a few people. If a project, at its greatest success, can only influence a few other scientists in the whole world, then, well, you get the idea.

Yes, scientists are good communicators. And we know how to talk to the public. We just might not think we’re the right people for the job, or that our science isn’t built for the task.

8 thoughts on “Scientists know how to communicate with the public

  1. I don’t know. I’ve sat through so many talks and posters where I thought, “I like this stuff, and I’m confused / bored / annoyed. If this is what you’re doing for peers, what must someone who is not in research think of this?”

    If “Scientists are bad at communicating” is too broad a brush stroke, maybe “Scientists are fine at communicating ” is also too broad. Maybe there is no generalization to make.

    • Indeed.

      Perhaps, if scientists are good at communicating with their peers, then they’re probably just as capable at communicating with the public.

      While we remember the crappy talks and some of us keep track of crappy posters :) at the last few conferences I’ve attended, the most of the talks I saw were engaging, clear and on point for the audience.

  2. I think the call for scientists to communicate their work more is partly to open up the black box that is the scientific enterprise (my family barely understand what I do and my friends don’t understand how academia is structured at all..what’s a postdoc, exactly?). It’s about opening up the process of science more to hopefully make more people realize that ‘oh, this does affect my life in some way’ or ‘huh, maybe I could do that too’. And on that score, I feel like there’s a lot more practicing scientists could do (even though I also recognize that many practicing scientists do things in their communities to do just that).

    And of course, I’m selfish…as a practicing scientists, I love hearing about things from other fields. I don’t claim expertise in any of them (and if offering up an opinion about it, state my non-expert status on that subject), but love trying to see the connections between different fields of study; how they approach questions, etc. and often that happens through science communicators (of course, take what they write with a grain of salt…just like a press release).

    As for it being a duty, well, if the NSF/NIH say it is…then it is. If not, it isn’t.

    And I agree with Zen above…even about myself. I am a horrible poster presenter…and find poster sessions not enlightening at all. And I’ve sat through plenty of really dry talks that might be great science, but I tune out instantly because my brain isn’t engaged. One of the best speakers I’ve seen deliver a technical talk does this thing at the beginning of her talk where she puts on the wireless microphone and then jumps off of the dais and talks right below the presentation screen.

    There may be no generalizations to be made here; we all have different talents/propensities, and should use them to advance knowledge as best we can.

  3. Interesting post Terry – I agree with some parts of it – but I do think one key issue is that many academics are, quite simply put, bad at communicating… this is where the importance of training has to creep into the discussion. In addition to receiving very little training as teachers, for example, we don’t receive any real training in the broader area of communication. Taking short workshops in ‘communicating with journalists’, ‘how to do a radio interview’, etc. could be so useful. If the training component isn’t part of the equation, the science communication by scientists will largely be done by those that know how to do it (and who like to do it).

    • Chris, I am too much of an educator to say that training is useless, but communication is a complicated skill that needs a lot of practice.

      I teach full semester classes in technical presentation and writing. Particularly in the presentation class, I spend several weeks in the class giving students suggestions, directions, and advice on things to avoid in presentations. It’s a bit more substantial than most workshops, I reckon. Armed with this, many of my students students proceed to make EXACTLY the same mistakes I warned them NOT to make.

  4. I agree with the others, I have seen many terrible talks and posters. They’re not bad because the scientists are choosing to resist generalization or don’t understand why their own work is important (well, the latter seems sometimes true). They’re bad because the speakers are poor communicators–even to other scientists in their field or sub-field, never mind the public! I’d say that’s the majority of talks and posters. You must be going to some unique conferences (I do think ATBC 2013 was a cut above, actually).

    I’ll give you an update on what I think in a few months. Just yesterday I started a volunteer thing at the local public radio station where I’ll help find basic science stories, pre-interview the scientists, and book the interviews :) I should keep track of how often people who I’ve never met fail the pre-interview smell test of “will anyone understand this or find it interesting?”

    I agree with you that it’s not necessarily everyone’s responsibility to be a good communicator. But, it’s definitely in their own best interest to be one! Science that isn’t effectively shared with colleagues might as well not exist–so points in the favor of being a good communicator, at least with other scientists. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that there would be a lot of overlap between people who are really good at communicating with scientists and non-scientists. It’s in everyone’s interest to be a good communicator, then, even if they don’t necessarily have an interest in doing it outside the ivory tower.

    I don’t know if you consider these to be sort of biased opinions because I am both a scientist and a science communicator…? Does a love of effective communication of all stripes, a love of professional development for students focused on communication, and a love of outreach disqualify me from judging whether scientists are good communicators and whether it’s in their best interest to improve their communication skills? I don’t quite get how listening to recommendations about science communication from advocates of science outreach and literacy is the same as listening to recommendations about energy from oil companies. Is there a more objective or opposite point of view that we should also be listening to–the POV of people who think science outreach is bad for society? I don’t think anyone who tries to get scientists to do outreach is expecting everyone to jump on board; as with any advocacy, the point is to convince more people to take up your cause because you think more help is needed. Does thinking that more help is needed make me a salesman?

    Here’s a great recent article about the importance of science literacy from Orion Magazine, if anyone is looking for inspiration. I love this magazine!

    Anyway, we can discuss on the porch at La Selva if you’ll be there in June!

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