Communication in Science: ‘Ignorance is a wonderful thing with a little curiosity attached to it’

by Celeste Mallama, PhD student

“Not even my parents know what I do.”

This is a common gripe amongst graduate student in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. We study one amino acid, in one protein, in one bacteria that the majority of people have never heard of. I know personally as a PhD student in biology, in the past while trying to explain my research I would see eyes glaze over, and so at some point my answer to the question of “so what do you study?” became: “oh, I do really technical research in a biology lab. It’s not very interesting, you don’t want to hear about it.”

I always assumed I was doing the other person a favor by not boring them with my research, but a talk I attended  hosted by  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)  at their annual conference in Chicago this past weekend made me rethink this position. This specific session was on the topic of communication in science, and it was hosted by Alan Alda.

While many know Alda from his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on MASH, he also hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for over a decade. He told the crowd that he had decided to create the center because of his time hosting the PBS series. He explained how trying to extract stories of science from scientists made him realize that communication is a skill that needs to be built into science curriculums alongside research. As American science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker said in her session on science and social media, you can conduct the best research in the world, but if no one hears about it and understands it, it doesn’t matter.

The idea of communication with the public is not something that is sufficiently stressed in higher science education. Scientists are taught to communicate with other researchers in their field – and this is certainly important. In order to learn from each other and collaborate, a very technical level of communication is necessary, and is achieved in the form of presentations at conferences and published peer reviewed articles in journals, but what about communication to the general public?

While there were several major themes discussed in the meeting, the three key pieces of advice stressed in sessions devoted to communicating science at the AAAS conference were:

1)     Cut out the jargon. Sure, it’s best to be precise when you’re speaking to your colleagues, but the second you use the term “GC-MS” you’re going to lose your audience.

2)     Form analogies. The documentary team for the film “Fermilab: Science at Work”  which focuses on the research of physicists at the national accelerator laboratory, explained how useful it was when one researcher used the example of ice cream cones that changed flavor to explain neutrino oscillations.

3)     Make it personal. As scientists, we’re taught to keep our science free of the first person and therefore of emotion, and that’s for the best in the lab and in an academic setting, but maybe not so much when trying to communicate science to an outsider. David Baron, a science reporter with Colorado public radio, spoke on the rise of the personal narrative. He explained that the way to hook an audience was to make science personal. Rather than putting the data from the scientific research up front, what science journalists are doing now is putting the researcher up front, and then using the personal narrative of their achievements and frustrations and failures to explain the research.

Why does this matter?

STEM graduate students everywhere will be delighted if they can better communicate their research to their parents, but beyond that, what are the practical applications? Alda made the very persuasive point that congressmen, who are part of the lawmaking process for science funding, are part of this general public. In terms of procuring funding for science research, something that’s necessary for the advancement of human and environmental health along with many other areas, it’s hard to convince congressmen to give money towards research when they don’t understand the project this money is going towards funding.

Finding a new way to sing your song!

Alda told a particularly enlightening story about a long bus ride he took with a scientist who was trying to explain his research. Alda wasn’t following and so he was asking questions of this researcher. Finally the researcher grabbed him by the lapels, shook him, and said “Alan! Pay attention!” Well he was paying attention, Alda explained – he just couldn’t follow the scientist’s vocabulary. He explained this to the crowd with an analogy – say there’s a person knocking on a table, creating the rhythm of a piece of music they’re thinking about in their head. To the person knocking, it’s entirely clear what the song is because they hear the melody in their mind. However, to the person listening to the knocking, it’s completely unrecognizable. As scientists, we need to realize that just because we hear the melody in our heads, doesn’t mean that anyone else hears it. Therefore, we need to find new tools to describe the song.

Frustrations in communicating science is an obstacle all scientists face, and often we give up because we don’t think the other party is paying attention. Perhaps what we need to do is take a step back and look at how we’re describing our science. Go back to the three points – am I using too much jargon? Could this be better explained with an analogy? Am I forming a cohesive narrative, or am I just rattling off facts?

It might seem sometimes as if people aren’t that interested in science, but the popularity of NOVA specials, and the billions of tweets and millions of Facebook posts generated during the seven minutes of the landing of the Mars Rover tell another tale.  People are interested, and scientists need to find a way to communicate their science with the public. Alda attributed his success as the host of Scientific American Frontiers to the fact that he was able to extract these scientific tales from scientists in an understandable way by being genuinely curious and asking them questions, thereby forcing them to break down their science into digestible pieces – he explained that ignorance can be a wonderful thing with a little curiosity attached to it.

Call to Action:

For those of you interested in science communication, take a look at “The Flame Challenge” created by Alda. In this contest, a group of eleven year olds come up with a scientific question, and scientists around the world are challenged to provide an explanation to this question. The results are judged by the group of eleven year olds who posed the question. The first year the question was “what is flame?” The winning entry included an original song and animated video. (http://vimeo.com/40271657) The second year the challenge was to explain “what is time?” This year, the question is “what is color?” Entries are due by March 1st.

Another way to communicate your science is to share on the NPHR blog. If you are involved in public health research and would like to write a post about it for the NPHR, please email us at nphr@u.northwestern.edu.
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About NPHR Blog (185 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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