Science communication

Science communication is hard, but it’s something scientists should always be striving to improve.

Specifically, we often see the difficulty in communication between scientists and the general public. The concepts discussed are often complex and not fully settled. Scientists often use jargon or scientific methods of communication that don’t translate to the public well. The final result is that scientists and the public don’t understand one another as well as they might, which is a loss for all of us.

On Friday I went to a science communication workshop run by The American Association for the Advancement of Science (or AAAS) to learn about science communication. The AAAS tries to help scientists communicate in all ways–such as with policy makers, with other scientists, and with members of the public. They outlined three points of emphasis to improve communication. We then practiced talking about our research following these guidelines (perhaps I’ll post my spiel in some future post).

  • Communication structure: Scientific papers first provide the background material before stating the outcomes or results of a paper. Popular writing starts with the results and then provides the supporting arguments. In discourse with the public, scientists must follow the conventions the public uses.
  • Audience: A scientist must understand the communication’s audience. Jargon may work within the field, but even scientists from nearby disciplines probably won’t know it. The general public or children definitely won’t.
  • Message: A brief talk or article cannot communicate an entire field. It must communicate two or three salient points. It can be tempting to explain everything to an interested member of the public, but it simply isn’t possible.

In particular, I think the public might be surprised to learn of the difficulties different scientists have in communication. I recently earned my PhD in chemical engineering. When I was writing my final dissertation, I asked my father for help with editing. He has a PhD in chemical engineering as well, and works on advanced data management. It might seem strange, but he struggles to understand my work, and I struggle to understand his. With effort, I made the more general parts of my dissertation accessible to him, but the truly technical parts would have taken him much longer to understand. This graphic of what a PhD is partially illustrates the nature of this problem.

The difficulty two people with the same kind of PhD face in communication highlights the need for us to discuss science communication. As I initially said, science communication is hard. But many important problems today have a scientific aspect or could be examined in a scientific way. As scientists learn to articulate their concerns and findings better, that paves the way for better discourse with the public.

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