REPOST: Do as You Say, Do as You Do – Fixing Science Communication

Carl Sagan with Viking lander
Before I tell you how to fix science journalism (super glue, duh), let’s get everyone on the same page. The science journalism problem is really a science communication problem. Science journalism is just a portion of the science communication problem. It just happens to be an especially visible portion because journalists already have a forum and an audience. If we can solve the science communication problem, the science journalism problem becomes irrelevant, although the science journalists might not be happy with the solution.

I’ve actually been listening to a lot of advice from people older, wiser, and more successful than I on this topic. In doing so, I have a learned that the solution to our science communication problem is very simple. All we need to do is exactly what they did.

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (Fair Use)Thanks. Great advice. Really, really great advice.

There are only a few problems with this advice. First, we all agree that there is a science communication problem. The same people giving the advice are the folks who were the prominent science communicators as these problems have grown. There advice may not be worth much. They may be the best science communicators around, but that may not be saying much.

Second, they all disagree. It’s like getting advice from the American Idol judging panel.

Finally and most destructively, this approach makes budding science communicators feel like failures. In general, this advice takes the form of do A, B, and C to be a successful science communicator. A, B, and C are usually stated in a way reminiscent of an astrologer’s predictions. They appear specific, but are too vague to interpret, leaving you with the feeling that your lack of success was due to your failure to follow an unfollowable recipe.

Former basketball player Michael Jordan
Image via Wikipedia

Talented people underestimate how much they benefit from their talent. We like to imaging that we earned what we have received. That is true, to an extent. But talent matters. Michael Jordan‘s advice on playing basketball would have little relevance to me.

But, now, you are in for a treat. You are about to get advice from someone who is not a particularly successful or effective science communicator, but has the freedom of not really caring.

All snark aside, there is actually value in the crappy advice of our betters, but in a Cohcrane Review meta-analysis sort of way. Individually, the advice is not worth much. If you step back, however, and look at the diverse opinions and the the diverse people giving them. Rather than giving you a road map to success, what this variety tells us is that their are numerous ways to make an impact.

Which brings us to the rugbyologist‘s rules for science communication:

1. Be you
The great science communicators (e.g., Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman) embraced their talent and passion. Not everyone is a great communicator like Carl or story-teller like Richard. Use your talent where it is best employed and follow your passion. The audience is complicated and diverse. We need complicated and diverse approaches to communication. We also need strong discussion within the scientific community. The best current example in my mind in Neal DeGrasse Tyson. He has a talent and a passion for communication. He gives the impression that he takes on the role of a science communicator because he could hardly do anything else. We are not all going to have that talent and passion. That is ok. After all, someone still has to do the experiments.

2. Embrace diversity!
The “do what i did” mentality is pervasive. Currently, we tend to identify jobs before we identify talents. We need to get rid of the expectation that every PhD student will go into academia and the stigma associated with those who don’t. PhD science communicators like Phil Plait and Randy Olson are not failed scientists. They are talented communicators with the scientific training necessary to communicate the scientific method to non-scientists. Dr. Mrs. Rugbyologist taught high school science and felt the burden of being labeled as a “failed” scientist. She supposedly gave up. Except that’s a lie the academic industry tells us because the people running it (of course) think they have the best jobs in the world. Dr. Mrs. Rugbyologist is an incredible scientist, but she is a better teacher and a passionate teacher. Please, try to waste your time arguing that helping our younger generations understand the scientific method is not a better use of her time, talent, and passion. The system needs to embrace that kind of thinking, but the system is people. So, you need to embrace it to. I dream of a world where budding science journalists are encouraged to pursue a maters or doctoral thesis in scientific research before embarking on their journalistic career in the full knowledge that they plan to become journalists. That is a recipe for quality journalism.

3. Science not “Facts”
We like to measure scientific literacy with surveys reporting how many people know that the earth goes around the sun, and other such trivia. We scientists like to pick on the media, both the press and entertainment, for getting the details wrong. The problem is not that people do not have the scientific facts. The facts change all the time. That is what science does. We learn new things and throw out the old. Science is a method. Focus on the method. People with the right tools can survive bad details.

Wow. So, that actually wound up being the exact opposite advice from the experts. Don’t do what the “old white guys” tell you to. Unless their name is Sagan, they probably don’t know what they are talking about, and, anyway, that would be like getting your basketball advice from Jordan. You aren’t Carl. You don’t need to be Carl. In short, don’t worry and go get ’em.

*This article originally appeared at Science 2.0 on 5 March 2010.

Author: Josh Witten

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