The Communication of Science, Part One

[As you read by the title, this is Part One in another of my lucky-to-be-nominated-award-winning series of two-part Mega Posts. Sorry, guys. Hopefully, this duology will be less like a continuation of one story and more like two meditations on a single topic. In this post, I’ll talk about the importance of good science communication, and in the next one, I’ll provide some of my favorite examples. Hopefully it’ll be fun for the whole family.]

One of the greatest things about science, in my opinion, is its almost neurotic obsession with exactness. (Please excuse me for anthropomorphizing the entirety of our practice, but since science is impartial and, you know, not alive, it probably won’t mind.)

Science—or scientists, rather— aren’t satisfied with vague approximations or educated guesses: they want the truth (and yes, Tom Cruise, they can handle the truth). They want to unwind everything, to shine flashlights around corners, to behave like mechanics and dismantle and rebuild the engines of nature until they can better understand how they work.

I know my metaphors are somewhat muddled—my writing has gotten a little flabby since college—but my point still stands: science is a precise discipline. And often, when communicating science to other people, that precision becomes an obstacle.

As scientists, we must compete for the attention of an increasingly distracted audience who can only stomach small, preferably cat-video based chunks of information. (And yes, I’m also the guy who demands that young children get off his lawn. What can I say? I like my grass.) Science is difficult, confusing, and intricate, and laying everything out clearly for people to understand is an almost herculean task.

But that’s part of our responsibility as scientists. We are practitioners of a specialized craft, and this craft has profound implications in the lives of everyone around us; therefore, we must speak eloquently and passionately about it. This communication, I believe, is instrumental to our profession. It’s our obligation, and our privilege, to our fellow man.

For me, the fundamental part of communicating is knowing how to express yourself comfortably. This doesn’t mean talking to people with politician-like smoothness—most scientists I know have crippling social awkwardness, and politicians themselves aren’t the greatest model of credibility. Nor does this mean understanding all the basic rules of speech and grammar, although goodness knows a refresher course couldn’t hurt.

No, this means having confidence, confidence that you know your research and you know your audience. It’s something I’m working on myself. Recently, all first year students were required to give brief ten-minute presentations to one another about their rotation projects. Nothing fancy, I thought: just a short summary of your research in front of your friends. Piece of cake.

But even though I practiced my talk many times, I still got flustered, waving my hands like airplane propellers and saying “so” more times than a gossipy seamstress. I might be relatively comfortable behind the keyboard, but I’m still deeply uncomfortable in front of other people.

This presentation crystallized for me the idea that being good at communicating science—in writing, presenting, or even just chatting—is an unfinished process. (Or more bluntly, in the words of the great singer/songwriter Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.: Don’t you ever get too comfortable.) We should take the concept of science communication as seriously as our research itself, unwinding it, shining a light on our weaknesses, and building and rebuilding on our strengths.

One of my favorite quotes is from an old Chinese proverb: “A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.” What a wonderful reminder, I like to think, that all the complexity and fascination and beauty in our world can be captured and preserved in something so small.

4 responses to “The Communication of Science, Part One

  1. Great post! We need more people like you willing to bridge the jargon divide. Looking forward to Part 2 of this mega-post.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I often find myself stuck in one of two extremes when trying to explain and summarize my research- either it sounds like I’m talking to a class of preschoolers, or my explanation gets so technical I sound like I’m speaking a different language! Someone should compose a guide on how to do this correctly!

  3. Nice post!
    Stay tuned for the 3 Minute Thesis Competition coming to Research Week this year- students will be judged on making their science accessible to everyone…should be fun.

    ..and to Amanda- for a guide look at ‘Don’t Be Such a Scientist’ by Randy Olson.

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