Sunday, April 12

Scientists Communication

Not only in comments that I have made elsewhere in the blog, but also in other people’s comments, I have noticed a trend in these comments saying that scientists need to not only discuss and communicate with one another but also with the public. Yet, how are scientists to be taught, shown, told, etc that it is important for them to communicate their lines of inquiry and findings with others, and to do so successfully?

There obviously are scientists who do know how to communicate, and do so successfully, but I would argue that many of these scientists run up against plenty of road blocks along the way. For example, as was talked about in “Private Science, Public Inquiry” there is a good proportion of university research that is funded by private (industry) funders. Therefore, one can only assume that scientists with such funding may have difficulty getting permission by such funders to present certain results, thus inhibiting their ability to communicate with others. Also, I would assume that scientists who work in government labs have similar difficulties (e.g. there has been some evidence that some of the engineers working on the shuttle Columbia knew that there was a potential problem, but such facts were not made public until years later). What are such scientists to do? Are they to turn down private funders or fight against the government? According to Kitcher and his suggestion for how to move towards well-ordered science, the scientists should fight or step done/away from their research. However, is this something that scientists in such positions should be expected to do? This I am unsure of. For if so, there would most likely be high resistance. Also, if they do, my guess is that private funders and/or the government would find scientists who would be willing to work under such conditions and go against Kitcher’s well-ordered science.

As for those who do not communicate or do not know how to communicate effectively, how are they to be taught how to do so? First, many of these scientists would probably not respond well to being told that they do not know how to communicate. Second, I highly doubt that they would want to take classes, read something, or attend conferences specifically about communication (my guess is that the individuals who would attend such a conference would be those who already can communicate). So what is left? This I do not know, and is where I am stuck and do not know what to suggest.


  1. This is definitely a very interesting point you raise here. I was one of the people who was very pro-communication with the public...yet I didn't think too deeply into the actual execution of the increased communication and how scientists would react. Like you, I am sure that it would not sit well with many scientists if they were forced to take classes or attend conferences strictly about communication. One solution could possibly be some sort of integrated classroom/conference arena in which scientific issues are discussed openly within a public forum..but this strikes me as something that is pretty much already done in many ways. Maybe just more stress on communication to the public would suffice..definitely a good post to think about.

  2. While I think it is important for the scientific community to communicate with the public, I don't think it is important for every scientist to attempt it. Some are more predisposed than others for this task (I think personality goes a long way here). We just need representative liaisons from every field.

    An approach which might prove fruitful here is to exploit what currently works well. Some scientists are very good at getting their points across regardless of their audience. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Vilayanur Ramachandran, and Jonah Lehrer are examples of scientists who can do this well. They make use of simple language, analogy, short stories, simple visual aids, and applicable examples to make their points. I think what is most fundamental is understanding your audience and building on their existing mental schemas for how they view the world. For example, Tyson often draws on household objects we are all familiar with to convey astronomical scale.

    I also think PBS shows like Nova and Nature are on the right path when it comes to effectively communicating science. They are very good at breaking down a particular topic and presenting it in a structured fashion. Some of the shows on the Discovery channel and the Science channel are also pretty good at this.

    On the flip side there are also examples of ineffective communicators which we can use to identify what doesn't work. Some scientist might be brilliant in the lab, just not cut out of the lab disseminating to the public.

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  4. I think scientist can communicate in various ways and the necessity to communicate either by one-to-one communication or speak out loud in conferences or speeches with a loudspeaker would depend on the purpose of enlightening people. For instance, it would be unreasonable to consider one-on-one communication for topics related with the effects of climate change or educating about keeping oneself safe during an epidemic. However, it would also be unreasonable to have speeches or press conferences for scientific questions that have an immediate impact individually such as a person suffering from a debilitating illness.

  5. I agree with you Roger that not all scientists have the outgoing personality to be able to give talks to varying audiences in varying settings for communicating with the public and other scientists. However, giving talks is not the only form of communication that a scientist can use. For example, a scientist can write a report/paper/article/etc. to communicate (which a majority do and are expected to do). The problem I see is that I think some scientists are not good at communicating in any form, and I see this as a problem. I view one of the responsibilities of a scientist to be able to communicate what they are doing with others in one form or another, and if they are unable to do so, then what is the point? Are they not then just doing it for their own personal gratification?

    A response, like you mention, may be to have representatives for groups of scientists, especially for those who are unable to communicate well. This may work for when a scientist cannot communicate well through talks, but I don’t think that then takes all responsibility away from the scientist. Like I said above, a scientist should be responsible for communicating their line of inquiry or results and doing it well in some form, and so if they have someone else communicate for them in one form I think that they should be able to do so in a different form.

  6. You bring up a very good point about a problem in science that I had not really considered before. It does seem that a lot of the problems involving scientists being able to pursue certain lines of research and being able to present their findings in ways that are comprehensible and meaningful to other audiences (most notably the lay-public) are due to incredible problems with communication. How does one go about presenting extremely technical information that most likely involves explicit knowledge of the subject in ways that could understood by others outside of the subject?

    Although, it could be argued that lack of proper communication that leads to gross misunderstandings are pretty much behind every major source of conflict in the world today, this problem seems especially poignant and solvable from the perspective of science. It seems to me that the goal of science would be to discover and invent methods, tools, and ideas that are beneficial towards everybody and lead to a progressive society. Unfortunately being unable to explain how these methods, tools, and ideas are to be used or understood is a big road block towards that goal.

    The biggest influence I can see in perpetuating this problem would be in the way the education system is set up. Generally, it seems that when one enters a field of study it is very specific and technical. There is little overlap with other, perhaps wildly different fields. This does help in maximizing the material learned for a given field in a certain amount of time. However, it limits the potential for any research gained to be understood or even applied in any situation outside the field. While technical fields do attempt to provide the participants with experience in communication, I feel that they do not do nearly enough. If you can't express the incredible ideas you develop in meaningful ways, how can you enforce discovery and application in other areas?


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