Critical ThinkingCultureEducationScience

Communicating science

This morning, the main site’s quickies had a link to how science stories are often illustrated with some attention grabbers that misrepresent the actual content of the study being described.  This reminded me of an incident when a new faculty member in our Communication department was introducing herself to the faculty at our school and managed to stuff her whole foot in her mouth by saying that scientists are terrible communicators…standing in front of the entire sciences faculty, whom she had not met yet.  She was joking around about her subfield, which involves discussing science a lot.  We were not amused.

These perceptions that a) science is boring/too hard/too complicated to explain briefly, b) scientists are bad communicators, and c) it takes other people to explain science to non-scientists really irritate me.  I regularly read about science in a variety of media, from actual papers to blog posts to cartoons, etc.  Yes, some of the papers can be dry as dust, and yes it can get really complicated, but the subject matter is rarely boring.  Most of the science bloggers I read are working scientists, but many are not.  Not all scientists (!) are boring and use jargon more than simple words, and no it doesn’t take a scientist to explain science.

These perceptions carry through every aspect of my professional life though.  I teach introductory courses where non-majors dread the content because they expect it to be “let’s learn complicated vocabulary you’ll never use again!” to advanced courses, with a focus on doing independent research and learning to present it in a variety of ways.  Students in those courses have to be trained to NOT lapse into “science-ese” or how they think scientists sound – long sentences full of jargon they are usually using wrong, passive voice, etc.  This is in spite of them reading model papers that are quite accessible for the most part (though yes, there is way too much of that still).

The idea that science must be communicable in sound byte style is definitely a contributing factor to the idea scientists don’t communicate well.  We get really excited about what we do and containing ourselves can be an issue, not to mention that often what we do can’t be compressed into a few sentences easily.  We also want our excitement to be shared despite however much background we have to fill in to get to the good part.  So the boring, gibbering scientist at the party trope is born.  Also, many of us work in areas that can be controversial to some degree or another.  I use evolution all the time in my work and while it doesn’t happen often, I’ve had creationists start random arguments with me about that theory instead of listening to my research findings.

One thing about communicating science is we know it depends on the open-mindedness of the listener/reader.  Even more than using simpler language or staying on target and avoiding those fascinating tangents, the degree to which the audience wants to understand what you’re communicating might be the key to effective science communication.  My students are most willing to listen and understand the science I’m communicating when they know it’s on the exam!  The clashes come when teaching evolution, when teaching embryonic development, when teaching climate change, etc.  and even then the students listen and learn, they just don’t choose to believe.  And there’s the crux.  I can teach my students to read and make good graphs and tables of data, to interpret them usefully and accurately, to explain the findings to a variety of audiences, but if I can’t get science students to be open-minded, then what hope do any of us have for the relatively untrained?

So is the question actually that we need better science communication or more that we need to train ourselves and our students to question their beliefs when they see contradictory information.  We already train them on identifying problematic information, but do we do enough to make them examine their own biases?  The example in the linked article above was women talk more than men as the attention grabbing misrepresentation, while the study itself found no difference in the number of words used by men vs women.  In a society steeped in the ideas of women as talkers/communicators/verbal/etc., how hard a sell would that be?

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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