Have you ever tried explaining something for the third time to someone? It’s tiresome, but maybe you just aren’t saying it properly. The perpetual struggle of science is this: the language simply doesn’t make sense (to anyone else, and very often most scientists).
A quick scrawl through the comments sections of popular newspapers says it all. Despite the fact that it’s nice to see interesting, attention-grabbing headlines ploughed over by keen, but alas uninformed readers, it’s clear that we have a long way to go when it comes to making science both accessible and understandable.
There’s a fine line to draw between communication and misinformation.
For ease of reading, the title of this article should probably be, “To talk about clever stuff is hard: because big words.”
That’s not being condescending, it’s stemmed in reality. The main newspapers (by number of paper copies read) cater for a reading age of between seven and nine (that’s 7 and 9).
Words such as condescending do not appear in these newspapers.
In fact, words longer than seven letters long, and usually two syllables, are avoided (in a particularly popular tabloid that rhymes with fun) if at all possible. That’s why, often, complex left wing arguments (for example) are absolutely useless when competing with the simple and easy to understand language of far right jingoism.
Thus, too, it’s not hard to see why science headlines can be so misleading, or outright wrong. But then, what does an editor care when the stiffest competition is a sidebar of sordidity?
However, what isn’t stressed enough is that communicating science is not at all dissimilar to trying to communicate in a different language entirely. A student studying for a degree in the life sciences, or medicine, can easily learn as many new words as someone learning French, German, Italian or Spanish.
If you read enough, you could probably learn enough words to comprehend Ancient Greek.
A different language
We have to accept, as scientists, or science writers pretending to know what we’re writing about, that the nuances of what we are describing are going to be lost on 99.98% of people.
Let’s face it, the nuances of a PhD are probably lost on everybody but the person pulling their hair out trying to get the qPCR machine not to evaporate their samples and replace them with random foreign DNA, scientist or non-scientist.
In the last paragraph I just used several terms that would leave many people scratching their heads, or shouting at the newspaper. Try and find them, answers at the bottom and a prize for who can re-write the paragraph the best they can in the 1000 most common words of the English Language.
But just how do we speak to the crowd while retaining the important information?
Accept that it’s absolutely necessary to simplify, but not so much as to change the meaning of the outcome
Big bold statements are everywhere in science news.
Every week, seemingly, there’s a new “cure for cancer.” By cure for cancer, we mean that someone squirted some cancer cells with an exquisitely toxic amount of something and, lo and behold, the cells die.
But, clearly, “scientists find another thing that kills cells in a petri dish,” doesn’t really resonate as much as “scientists can cure cancer with orange juice.”
People like orange juice, and they don’t like cancer. Most people don’t know what cells are, what a petri is, or why it’s anywhere near a piece of kitchen apparatus, but scientists are probably murderers.
We have to find ways to make science appealing beyond the showbiz headlines, which is something that is demonstrably achievable if we consider the success of such series at Planet Earth, or the Wonders of the Universe.
But who are we appealing to and why?
It’s hard to define what science communication is, never mind what we do it for.
There are other forms of the art, other than writing, presenting and broadcasting, of course. There are the people who dedicate their life to inspiring the next generation of scientists by going into schools and teaching every single day. They deserve the shiniest medals and a pay rise.
There are science shows, science fairs, science festivals, all dedicated to reaching a wide audience and inspiring people about the wonders of science. They seem to work, when you’re there and people are inspired.
The problem is, some people still believe that vaccines cause autism (in pets now, as well, apparently) based on one headline in a newspaper. The fact this article was retracted holds no sway, the damage has been done.
The same can be said for a whole swathe of miscommunications and lies, from belief that homeopathy works to the fear that synthetic biology is somehow any worse than conventionally mutating plants.
Clearly, there are people who claim to be scientists shouting much louder and with much greater success than we are.
Shout loud, shout proud, make it interesting!
So, how do we communicate science properly?
The first place is to start, and to be open. Scientists are presented by some sources as experts (when they want affirmation) and others as evil villains who want to poison your children with food and vaccinations.
In an age where google is as likely to give you a wrong definition of a scientific theory as a correct one, based on how many people are writing wrongly about it, we have to shout louder than ever to make our voices heard.
Hiding behind scientific journals in snug academic environments isn’t going to help sway public opinion. Engaging in a genuine dialogue with the general public is, but that won’t ever be easy.
But when we do have those conversations, either online, face to face, or through whatever means necessary, we have to make sure that we are speaking in a language that everyone understands.