When one is deeply engaged in a topic it is often difficult to communicate that topic clearly to others. This is particularly pronounced when people communicate science or technological information. This situation is known as the cognitive gap in communication studies, meaning it is often difficult to explain a topic that one knows well in a way that people without the same level of competence, or even without any prior understanding of that subject, can understand.
Last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago, Alan Alda was the keynote speaker and centered his talk on the importance of communicating science. Alda has focused a lot of his attention over the past 20 years on raising public awareness of science, scientific discovery, and the work of scientists. First as the host of the long-running PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, then subsequently through his initiation and support of the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook University, Alda has worked to both raise the awareness of science and help the scientific community to improve its communication style. Alda has said repeatedly that his work on PBS was his greatest accomplishment on the screen, which given his many accomplishments and awards is high praise.
His work in communicating science has won several awards as well, including the National Science Board’s Public Service Award, the Scientific American Lifetime Achievement Award, and again last fall when Alda was awarded the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry, sponsored by the American Chemical Society. He also launched the extremely popular Flame Challenge competition.
We often view the communication of science, be it in our own scholarly journals or in mass media, as somehow distinct and meaningfully different from other communication styles. Alda made the point repeatedly during his presentation that this should not be the case. One can accurately convey science with stories and an engaging style that not only brings the reader along in the discovery process, but also preserves the truth and validity of the underlying discovery. Normally in scientific publishing, the focus is on a strictly factual and methodological approach. The notion that emotion, personality, or engagement should be included in scientific expression is almost an anathema for most content published in the scholarly literature. For this reason, much of it is very dry and staid, even hard to read.
While I want to be careful not to overstate this, science is at its heart about the human experience and real-world discovery. Stripping out the human element in communicating scientific results makes the communication process more difficult and the information challenging to convey. This is certainly not to imply that every scholarly article should be filled with flowery descriptions, gripping narrative, or tension-filled cliff-hangers. We shouldn’t expect the writing style of a chemistry paper to be as enthralling as the latest best seller. But style and reading ease within the literature is important. When communicating within one’s own community, the clarity and succinctness with which someone can accurately describe one’s work is a vital skill that should be honed by more scientists. It is an even more critical skill when scholars step outside their own ecosystem and communicate to the broader public.
Although Alda didn’t mention this explicitly, one of the premises of his talk is that this approach to communication is grounded in the study of the arts. During his speech, Alda discussed the work his team has done at Stony Brook on the effect on scientists of participating in theatrical improvisation exercises. The scientists who had undertaken this training were more engaged and more colorful afterwards when describing their work. This is an example where one discipline (humanities) can play a role in helping another discipline (science) become better, not in the underlying work of the discipline, but in communicating that work to those outside the discipline. The result is not “dumbing down” the science; it is taking complex data, analysis, and arguments and distilling them clearly and concisely to others who have a desire or need to understand.
This has broader implications that are worth considering. Much has been written about the lack of science understanding in the broader population and the bias against scientific fact on some topics—notably climate change, but also in other areas of study—which extends to leadership and oversight bodies as well. One additional story Alda related during his talk was the conversations he had with several Congressmen who had described how during panels with scientists they were passing notes to each other asking if they understood what the scientists were talking about—and none of them did! These congressional representatives were being asked to take actions—likely involving taxpayer funding—on the information these scientists were conveying (or in this case, not conveying). There have been other examples in which news stories quote people with oversight responsibility who were “briefed, but walked out understanding nearly nothing about the programs.” While there may be a conflation of a lack of technological understanding and willful obfuscation (as in the NSA surveillance issues) in some testimony, those involved in scholarly communication do have the ability to improve one aspect of that understanding gap through expressing science in a clear and understandable way.
Being able to communicate clearly in written form is a prized skill and not something that comes easily to every researcher. But regardless of one’s writing talents, a quality editor reviewing and proofing one’s work can certainly improve the final form of one’s writing. When non-technologists and non-scientists are confronted with scientific, technical or medical information— often full of jargon, charts, and technical detail—they can often miss the subtleties and insights that are hidden behind that jargon and deeply technical analysis. As one who is deeply engaged in both technology and communicating it to a broader community, this doesn’t surprise me. And I know I benefit from editorial review (Thank you to my own editor, Cynthia!), as do the more deeply technological specialists whom I work with regularly.
Perhaps we should all reflect on the importance of Alda’s comment that, “Communication is not something you add on to science, it is of the essence of science.” We can all help to improve this, and it is at the core of what publishers bring to the process of distributing science.