Alan Alda at AAAS in Chicago
Alan Alda at AAAS in Chicago (Photo credit: future15pic)

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.Enhanced by Zemanta

Todd A Carpenter

Todd A Carpenter

Todd Carpenter is Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). He additionally serves in a number of leadership roles of a variety of organizations, including as Chair of the ISO Technical Subcommittee on Identification & Description (ISO TC46/SC9), founding partner of the Coalition for Seamless Access, Past President of FORCE11, Treasurer of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), and a Director of the Foundation of the Baltimore County Public Library. He also previously served as Treasurer of SSP.


11 Thoughts on "On Communicating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine – Alan Alda Talks About Improving Scientific Communication"

While people like Carl Sagan, or more currently Alan Alda, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and others, are important and play a very visible role, we shouldn’t be too reliant on people like that. Highly visible, brilliant people, who are skilled communicators do play an important role in science communication and they have a tremendous impact. However, we don’t want to rely too heavily on these people, since it both limits the focus of the attention that the broader public has, as well as creates single points of failure.

The communication of science is something that every researcher/scholar should take seriously and consider and value clarity in their writing, as well as the background knowledge of their audience. Much has been written about the lack of understanding of science in the public at large and if that is going to change at all, it will have to come through a more regular and more diverse community of voices than just a few.

The phrase, “Communication is the essence of science” was coined in the late 1970s by William D. Garvey. However, Garvey’s intention was for the communication of ideas between scientists and not between scientist and public:

The main effort of individual scientists is manufacturing new informaiton either by describing new data or by formulating new concepts or conceptual integrations of data (theory). In order for these formulations to be successful contributions to science, they must be communicated in such a form as to be comprehended and verified by other scientists and then used in providing new ground for future exploration. Thus, communication becomes a salient feature of a scientific product since its recognition by peers as a unique contribution is essential to establishing a scientist’s success in science.

— p.1-2 from: Garvey, W.D. 1979. Communication, the essence of science : facilitating information exchange among librarians, scientists, engineers, and students. New York: Pergamon Press. 332 pp.

Garvey also lauded the work of librarians for their work in facilitating that communication between scientists. The emphasis on reaching the public seems to take a cyclical ride, becoming more important when congress starts questioning why taxpayers are spending so much on something they don’t understand or appreciate.

I have a catalog of the technical scientific language that is typically taught from first grade through college, ranked by grade level, if anyone is interested. One of the big sources of confusion in scientific communication is using technical language that the reader has not learned. My technical language catalog can be used to avoid this problem. The catalog was developed as part of the grade level search algorithm used at but it can also be used as a writing guide.

I discuss this more fully here:

Note that the typical member of Congress (and their staff) has probably had few if any college level science courses. However if there is science related to their specific legislative interests they will likely have learned some of it informally. But there is no easy way around the fact that science is very technical.

Science is very technical and we don’t want at all to be in a position where we are simplifying it to the point of error. However, each of us can work to improve how we communicate. It is a skill that is honed like any other. Adjusting one’s voice, terminology and manner are all methods that don’t come naturally, because we all prefer communicating in our own comfort zone. Being cognizant of the other person–their background, knowledge, experience and even biases–in the conversation is something we can all do a better job at. The challenge is just doubled when the content being discussed is highly technical or complex.

Another point is that publishers can do a lot, particularly editors, in helping the author to clarify and simplify their language. It is a shame that the art of editing, particularly in scientific communication, is not more highly valued and recognized. Far too many publishers are reducing the editorial investments that are made in the process. To be fair, it is not something highly recognized or prized by authors or readers as much as one might hope, which has led to the reduction in editorial review investments (to be clear, I mean for style and readability, that is, not peer or substantive review, which is still done).

Indeed, readability is what we are all about. Our motto is “write it so they can read it.” See An amazing amount of teaching and explanatory material uses technical concepts that are above the grade level of the intended reader. When someone has an advanced degree in a science it is hard for them to understand how little most people know. (For that matter my last biology class was in high school.) Using technical words the reader does not understand is the ultimate form of unreadability.

Thank you for correcting the obvious oversight. You are completely correct: There are a lot of women doing great science and doing great work communicating science too!

A great way to create relatable stories when communicating science is to use analogies. Tying a complex idea to an everyday scenario or thought really helps people understand and remember the idea. It also helps bridge the perceived disconnect between science and everyday life by showing how they are analogous and science is not some mystical thing to be gawked at, but rather something that can be embraced and understood as well as one understands how to cook their favourite meal or do the laundry.

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