The Horrors of Communication

What would you generally associate with a ‘scientist’? Personality traits? Skills? Interests?

Well of course there’s science, and a quick Google search gave me some other suggestions of what most people think. Typical personality traits that are associated with scientists – analytical thinking, intellectual honesty, curiosity, and focus came up a lot. Something that I didn’t see at all, however, was communication.

That’s a bit of a problem actually. Science revolves around discoveries but without communication there isn’t a way to get those out to others. Now very few people would argue that scientists aren’t good at communicating with each other, it’s only when the general public and media become part of the equation that things get a bit more scary. Although there are scientists who are perfectly comfortable and good at talking to the media and explaining science to those without their expertise, many more are not.

One big thing that I’ve heard is that scientists are afraid of the terrible headlines that come up every now and then. The media has a reputation for distorting an interview or press release in order to make a more interesting story and for many scientists this can be a reason to avoid talking to them. Sure, some journalists probably do this. Certainly a spin is often put on a story to make it more saleable, but most journalists are perfectly happy to present an accurate, factual story – as long as it’s still interesting. It helps if the journalist is willing to focus on the same angle as the scientist wants, of course, but it’s something that goes both ways. Scientists can make sure that they stick to the implications, and the aspects of their work that will be interesting to everyone who isn’t an expert in the field, and in return hopefully journalists will write a story to show off the research. This type of relationship between science and the media can give some amazing results with neither group having to sacrifice what’s important to them.

Two other problems that seem to arise when scientists talk to the media are overuse of jargon and expecting others to interpret the data. Jargon is great for a technical talk. It gets the point across fast and accurately and is often the correct term to use. It can also isolate you from the people you’re trying to talk to, make you seem pretentious and untrustworthy, and prevent non-experts from understanding the topic. Using jargon can be good, but generally it’s better left for other scientists and replaced with more commonplace language when talking to the rest of the world. Likewise data points can prove fascinating for others with the same very specific interest but the majority of the world doesn’t want to put the time and effort into understanding a graph or raw data. Summaries are your friend. Explaining, rather than simply showing, results is going to get a way better result and probably get a lot more positive attention for the work.

Not all science communication needs journalists though. This, blogging, is a quickly growing method of science communication where it’s possible to write about your own work in your own words and make sure that your meaning comes across. Similarly a rapidly increasing number of scientists are turning to things like Twitter to talk about their findings to the rest of the world. Both of these remove the risk of your words being misinterpreted or twisted for someone else’s purpose and let you get your work out there just as you want to.

So, for all scientists out there, go for it. Communication isn’t that big a deal, it’s just a case of learning how to make it accessible to everyone. The rest of the world isn’t really that scary.

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