Science communication? I wish it were that easy…

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Over at Scientific American, Christie Wilcox has written a provocative piece making the argument that every scientist should blog, be on Twitter, and otherwise throw themselves into the social media revolution.  Why?  Because average people just don’t get it, and as scientists, everything will be better if we just all show up on Twitter and talk science.  As she says:  “it is first and foremost the scientist’s job to share his or her research with the broader community. That means it is the scientist who is ultimately to blame when their research isn’t communicated well.”

Okay, I’m being unfair, but I’m being unfair for a reason.  Christie makes some good points in this paper, such as finding ways to break through “the jargon wall”, and she is right that there is a problem with the acceptance of scientific truths (especially in the US).  But in her rush to promote the virtues of social media, I think she inadvertently throws a few people under the bus.

Even worse, scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” We hand what we’ve committed years of our life to over to a writer that may have little to no science training and even less passion for the discipline as a whole. Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

If I were a science writer or journalist, I’d be pretty upset at Christie’s portrayal of my profession.  I’d be especially upset if I was someone like (the brilliant) Ed Yong, who she praises but who himself has said that “after leaving university with degree in hand, I made an abortive foray into research before realising that I much prefer to talk about science than to actually do it.”  Because though I doubt she meant to sound that way, Christie’s words suggest that most journalists / science writers are just mouthpieces who get in the way of real science communication;  years of training and/or experience in writing and communication of news are useless in the face of science, which can only be properly handled by scientists.  In particular, she points to an example of bad science reporting from Brian Anderson, which she herself trashed, about a Science paper reporting chemosignals in human tears (I haven’t read the original paper, myself).  But Christie misses a big point here:  Brian Anderson writes for msnbc.com, which gets millions of hits a month.  When Brian Anderson writes a crap piece, a lot of people see it.  When I write a crap piece on this tiny little blog – according to my site stats – 3 people see it.  If you gave every scientist the reach and audience that Brian Anderson has, I’d say that you’d be in danger of getting just as much crap writing about science (ahem).

The fact is, scientists who blog and tweet and othersuch right now are a self-selected bunch, and most of them do it either because they want to get better at science communication, or because they’re already good at it.  Christie writes as if  “all scientists have to do is get a Twitter account and a blog and magic will happen” (4. profit!!), but writing and communicating well is a difficult art which requires effort and time to master.  She herself has obviously put time into it;  the slides she links to from her post show visual design and presentation skill that is far better than most talks you will see by scientists, be they at a conference or a public event.  And I know how hard it is to make visually interesting talks and present well, because it’s a hobby horse of mine and something I’ve been evangelizing about to my peers for a few years now to a mixture of excited questions and blank stares.   The fact is that not everyone is good at communication;  they do good science, but they make for terrible speakers.  That’s why we have science writers:  not everyone wants to obtain these skills!  Some people just want to do research, not everyone wants to have a thousand followers on Twitter, and some scientists just want to use Facebook to (gasp) talk to friends and family.  They shouldn’t have to apologize for it.  (I’d honestly be happy if more scientists could be convinced to learn how to give talks to their peers that didn’t put entire rooms to sleep;  perhaps we can teach “writing a popular science book” in next semester’s class.)  How about this:  instead of giving every scientist a Twitter account, how about we work to make science writing and scientific journalism a field with more respect, and encourage people in undergraduate and postgraduate programs to view this an acceptable option?  Instead of making more blogs, how about we make more Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers instead?

Having said that, do I think that the acceptance of science would benefit from more scientists writing good material about science on the web?  Sure.  But I doubt very much that it’s as straightforward an equation as Christie would have us believe, where more scientists writing = more acceptance of science in a linear relationship.  For example, assuming that there isn’t some sort of US specific deficit in this matter, countries vary widely on how much they accept the word of scientists on topics like climate change and evolution.  Is Christie claiming that the number of scientists on Twitter or quality of science writing in the newspaper completely explain the differences between Iceland and the US (of about 40% of the population!) in acceptance of evolution?

Her argument also suffers from its own premises.  In her slides, she suggests that you should be on Facebook because there are 3 million links shared per hour, on Twitter because there are 200 million tweets per day, and Google+ because it’s reached 20 million users in record time. And if we follow her advice?  Well, then we just add to that flood of information.  But science communication is a two- way street, with a producer and a consumer.  We can’t just increase the number of people writing about science without finding some way to convince the public to tune in and read this stuff, to watch the videos, and follow scientists on Twitter.  Christie’s argument suggests that if we increase the amount of communication, resistance to science will go down.  I’d argue instead that this is a system locked in a feedback loop that must be addressed on both ends.  You can shove more science down the pipe, but if you don’t change the culture and widen the pipe to allow that quality material through, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

I know that I’m being hard on this piece, but it’s not because I think it’s a bad piece of writing.  I’m actually pretty impressed with her writing and enthusiasm and I’ll be keeping an eye on her RSS feed from now on. She’s right to encourage scientists to get better at communicating their work, and I would be happy if everyone followed her advice. I just don’t think it’s realistic to assume that everyone will, or that doing so won’t create nearly as many problems as it solves.  If scientific communication and acceptance of science is going to get better, it’s going to require a concerted effort on the part of scientists, science writers, journalists, educators, politicians, and everyone else who plays a part in driving our society towards accepting, understanding, and using the fruits of our scientific labour.

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7 thoughts on “Science communication? I wish it were that easy…

  1. […] Wilcox over on her blog about the push to get scientists online.  You can follow her rebuttal to my post, Kevin Zelnio’s post, and the latest developments on her blog here… […]

  2. Great blog you’ve written here. Fascinating tension between the scientists who create knowledge and the journalists who communicate it to society at large. A tension, I wager, that is fueled to some extent by the need to feed the public appetite for scientific discoveries. Surely skill sets all around contribute to the tension. On the non-scientists end, people who don’t have a sophisticated understanding of the very tiny slice of the world that a scientist studies in great detail will have an extremely difficult time grasping the often subtle meaning of the work. In order to make that type of knowledge accessible, the reality of the science needs to undergo a translation into metaphor and analogy and much is lost. On the scientists’ end, many find it difficult to even communicate the importance of their work to their colleagues. Scientists, on the whole, do have communication issues. Science writers do, in general, have accuracy issues when reporting. But I think it goes beyond skill sets and gets into stickier issues. Frankly, rare is the scientific finding that would garner a lot of public attention if it weren’t misrepresented and overhyped.

    Due to its fine-grained analysis, science often proceeds in tediously small steps. Further, results of experimental studies are notorious for being less than relevant to the more complicated and messy way things work in the real world. Take tedious and irrelevant and try to get millions of hits a month. Even prominent scientists who do have a gift for communicating often take an extreme interpretive route in order to publish their books. To sell books, they aren’t communicating science, they are using it to create a story people want to hear. People have a hunger for the “truths” that science seems to generate, they just don’t have a palate for how bland it really is.

  3. stevenhamblin says:

    That’s a good point, Rob; people are probably going to be more interested in the product than the process, but much of what gets bandied about in the science media is mostly process dressed up as product. It’s worth talking about whether more communication is what we need when what we have is already problematic.

    On the other hand, there are good examples of the system working correctly in both directions; science writers like the aforementioned Yong and Zimmer who get the science right while managing to convey excitement, or scientists like Robert Sapolsky who write brilliant books about the state of a field and their own work while not grinding away the interest of it. If we can promote this type of science commuication (online or not), I think we’ll do okay…

    • I agree, Steven. One thing I’d like to try is to create a collaborative project here at my university that includes science students and journalism students. I’d like scientist-journalist teams of students to have to wrestle with each others issues so that they might at least understand how the scientific knowledge is produced and how it needs to be communicated. I think it’s great time in a career to start learning how to navigate the issues of accuracy, accessibility and public interest on both sides. My guess is we need improved quality, not quantity.

  4. […] how to magnitude amicable media change and loyal reach. In another critique of Christie’s post, Steven Hamblin notes on an instance of trashy broadcasting by a media professional, “Brian Anderson writes for […]

  5. […] she’s written, you should go do so now.  Done?   Before we go on, let me reiterate what I’ve said before:  I like what she’s written, and I think there’s some great stuff in it.  Don’t […]

  6. […] Hamblin (Evolutionary Biology Post-Doc) – A Bit of Behavioural Ecology Science communication? I wish it were that easy… The economics of science […]

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