Communicating Science

Recently, Alan Alda wrote a letter in Science, asking scientists to answer the question – “What is a flame?” – in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible and maybe even fun. He presented this challenge because as a schoolboy, his teacher was unable to give him a satisfactory answer to the question, simply giving the answer “oxidation”. The contest resulted in some amazing entries, and highlighted a common problem in science; communicating ideas/concepts/results in a way that is accessible.

Normally, the job of communicating science doesn’t fall to scientists, but rather to journalists. However, there have been recent concerns that science journalists are getting caught up in the sensationalism of a story and are not reviewing the science, an article in The Guardian even asked “Should science journalists read the papers on which their stories are based on?“. In many cases journalists are not reading the actual papers, rather just the press release, and as such may be duped by overenthusiastic press agents, or even the researchers themselves. The blog The Last Word on Nothing (referring to the great Victor Hugo quote “Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing”) had a great post on the challenges science journalists face today, some key points were raised based on the authors personal experiences as to the things that hamper science journalism, namely; the use of statistical methods that few reporters can understand on their own; reporters are doing much more work, in much less time; and a loss of trust with traditional scientific authorities. Science journalists also have the difficult task of, as a recent conference title suggests, Writing in the Age of Denial. The conference brought 200 science writers to Madison, Wisconsin to discuss the following statement,

Science writers now work in an age where uncomfortable ideas and truths meet organized resistance. Opposing scientific consensus on such things as anthropogenic climate change, the theory of evolution, and even the astonishingly obvious benefits of vaccination has become politically de rigueur, a litmus test and a genuine threat to science. How does denial affect the craft of the science writer? How can science writers effectively explain disputed science? What’s the big picture? Are denialists ever right?

Some of the output of the conference is discussed at The Open Notebook. While so often the content of a news article on science can turn off a reader, sometimes it is the actual writing that may discourage further reading. Science journalism tends to follow a standard template for reporting (read this and never look at a science piece the same way again), particularly in animal genome stories, which Ed Yong pointed out all follow the pattern “X genome sequenced; reason why X is cool; maybe genome tells us why; squint into horizon” (perfectly exemplified here). In addition to format, what is crucially important in science journalism (and indeed all writing) is word choice, and Terribleminds provides a list of 25 Things You Should Know About Word Choice (#19 – Big Words for Tiny Penises), while Carl Zimmer goes so far as to keep a list of words that are banned from his science writing class (e.g., paradigm shift, and elucidate).

It is clear that reporting on science is a difficult task, one that is not made much easier by scientists. Perhaps in response to that fact (and no doubt several other factors), institutions and funding bodies are increasingly requiring researchers to engage with public about their research. The evaluation of these types of public engagement programs, is an area of research that is lacking, but beginning to grow. One of the best ways to engage the public in science is to have them participate in it. Of the more ambitious types of public engagement are the citizen science and the crowd sourced movements. Below are a list of sites that allow citizens to be a part of science, either by providing data or funds (both very important!)

  1. SciStarter
  2. Snowtweets
  3. Petridish
  4. Microryza
  5. Christmas Bird Count
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