The Communication of Science/The Science of Communication

Recently, Tom Bartlett (of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Percolator blog) asked “Is Evolution a Lousy Story?” He reviews the work of Dan McAdams on storytelling and its role in helping humans make sense of their lives. Evolution is a tough concept to understand through story, McAdams claims, because “there is no protagonist, no motivation, no purpose.” Bartlett points out that evolution has pretty tough competition in the drama of the creation story, featuring some strong plotting and “heroes, villains, nudity” – not to mention a few centuries of repetition and familiarity.

What’s a scientist to do? It turns out that communicating scientific knowledge in a compelling manner is getting lots of attention.  From the grant-getting PI who asks “What story are we telling in this application?” to the physicians we see regularly on the evening news, many scholars are thinking about how to communicate effectively and clearly.  Take climate change as an example:  Why do so many scientists agree and so much of the public disbelieves that climate change is occurring?

According to Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, authors of  “Communicating the science of climate change” the problem originates in the fundamentally different ways scientist and non-scientists communicate.  Science communication begins with the background, provides supporting details, and then supplies the results and conclusions.  (Show of hands: how many of you read the last page or two of a scientific article first, then go back to the start?) Somerville and Hassol recommend starting with the “bottom line”, explaining why the public should care, and then providing the supporting details.

Their other recommendations include:

  1. Put scientific findings into context – listeners don’t always have the basic understanding of a topic, so establishing some baseline of shared knowledge is helpful
  2. Use metaphors, analogies, and points of reference
  3. Anticipate common misunderstandings
  4. Make your message “simple but memorable”, personal, and immediate
  5. Let your passion show
  6. Pair up with a professional communicator – a journalist, storyteller, or marketer – to help craft your story
  7. Practice, practice, practice.

Need more advice on crafting a scientific message for a wider audience? Read Randy Olson’s Don’t be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style. Olson left a career as a professor of marine biology for film-making and also has some simple and direct advice for communicating more effectively.  He draws from the fields of acting, mass communication, storytelling, and film production to suggest methods for crafting a more accessible message. Olson sums up the scientist’s task fairly simply: get “out of your head, into your heart . . . with humor, and, ideally, . . .  sex appeal.”  For most people, effective communication involves telling them why to care and helping them care because they like you.  Maybe that’s difficult because it’s just SO unscientific!

Why bother? Because you’ll educate and persuade, but you’ll also empower your audience: “People like it when they understand something that they previously thought they couldn’t understand. It’s a sense of empowerment.” (Neil Degrasse Tyson)

[Lynne M. Fox, Education Librarian]