Tell people about your science in ways they can understand it

scicomm talkBy Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

I recently wrote up a profile on a Ph.D. candidate and her research on the impact of climate change on diatoms. After three years on the job as communications coordinator for Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, I almost didn’t notice how breezily I tossed in a stock explainer … a one-celled organism known for its glass shell and responsible for our every fifth breath with its photosynthetic quality.

It took a couple more sentences, before I stopped in my keyboard tracks and reread what had magically flowed from my fingertips. Jargon. One minute you’re googling terms like PCR and eukaryotic; the next, you’re glibly parroting terminology like you understand it.

I’m not saying I’m about to publish in a scientific journal, but I think I’ve arrived at the point between having no clue and a mild understanding of some basic concepts. What does this confession have to do with science communication? A lot.

I spent much of the last three years interviewing scientists and writing about their work, sitting in on dissertations and symposiums, observing poster presentations, and asking a lot of (I feel) stupid questions. These experiences all built on my last forays into science — high school biology and a college general education requirement, Man, Nature and Disease.

So if you are a scientist, consider me your test (or best) case — a well read news junkie, former print journalist (which dates me), with a bachelor’s in political science and master’s in communication studies, and now taking a turn as a science writer, which loops back to the point of effective science communication.

Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer best sums up the importance of telling people about your science in a way that they can understand it, writing in a Scientific American blog post:

“When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to broader, non-scientist audiences, it builds support for science, promotes understanding of its wider relevance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels, from government to communities to individuals. It can also make science accessible to audiences that traditionally have been excluded from the process of science. It can help make science more diverse and inclusive.”

At RI NSF EPSCoR partner institution Rhode Island School of Design, Jennifer Bissonnette, a scientist and an artist, walks in both worlds and knows exactly the huge difference an emotional rather than solely intellectual connection can make.

“If you only hear the science, it doesn’t always resonate,” she says. “Once you see these organisms, these fish, and get told the story that the science is analyzing, it’s not us versus them anymore. We are all a part of it and we are connected. That is what engages people.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.38.35 AM
Videos in the cartoon crash course, A Visual Glossary of Ocean Terminology, by cartoonist Jim Toomey and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

So, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest and nobody hearing it, if the general, non-expert public doesn’t understand your research, does your life’s work matter? Or, in the pressing case of climate change, for example, if people are not drawn in, will they act?

Noting that ocean conservation is an important issue, yet sometimes difficult to understand, the Pew Charitable Trusts teamed up with cartoonist Jim Toomey for a series of videos that explain some common concepts. Toomey takes on potentially complex topics like ocean acidification and ecosystem-based fishery management (EBFM) and draws in the nonscientist with plain speech and engaging drawings.

For example, he says, “the EBFM approach goes like this: If you want to preserve a certain species of fish, you have to preserve the place where they live and the species they interact with. It’s a big picture approach that recognizes that the great blue whale and the humble forage fish, the kelp forest and the deep ocean canyon are all interconnected.”

Simple and straightforward. Foundational language paired with lively animation.  The message makes the leap across the scientific divide. But, you say, you aren’t a cartoonist. Then what?

Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University, started CreatureCast, animated video podcasts that deliver “the unexpected world of biology” in an understandable and relatable manner. Think of it as the Mary Poppins sugar that helps the medicine go down.

These types of narratives and storytelling, according to an Iowa State University associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, play a critical role in communicating science to non-expert audiences. In a 2014 PNAS article, Michael F. Dahlstrom argues that because much of science exists outside the realm of most people’s experience, they depend on others to inform and interpret.

“When seeking information about a particular science or technology topic, the Internet becomes the primary source chosen (59%), with over half (52%) of the online content being derived from traditional journalistic sources,” Dahlstrom writes.

What this means is that the majority of nonscientists are getting their science from people who don’t always have the scientific expertise to distill the message accurately and may jump to the wrong conclusions. It is in this space where scientists have an opportunity to gain both confidence in their communication skills and greater comfort in dealing with journalists.

Although there are pitfalls and ethical considerations with narratives, Dahlstrom says storytelling within science should not be disregarded: “’The plural of anecdote is not data’ remains an important mantra to uphold the rigor of systematic data collection. However, when considering the communication of science to non-expert audiences, a more appropriate mantra might be, ‘the plural of anecdote is engaging science communication.’”

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