Monday, June 25, 2007

Becoming a Better Science Communicator

The average citizen often glazes over when they hear science or meet a scientist at a dinner party. Interestingly, scientists often glaze over when they have to talk about science in “everyday” terms. Most of us have a damn hard time relating to “regular people” and sometimes just dealing with non-scientists can be painful. Some call this behavior elitist; we label it as impatient.
And that’s usually what it is, impatience.

So, it would sand to reason that not everyone has the patience to do science outreach or science communication. Being an effective communicator or teacher calls on certain skills and pre-dispositions that come natural for some people. That doesn’t mean that many skills can’t be cultivated, developed, or improved; but it means that some people may be more interested in and able to interact with the lay public on matters of science.

But this matter may be very hard to drive home to other scientists, especially the top-notch research scientists. Science is by no means a mono-culture. But there is a bit of a hierarchy that people recognize exists. However, I am one to challenge the presupposition of this system. I think it serves the discipline better if each person is genuinely encouraged to pursue a scientific career that takes full advantage of one’s interests, abilities, and training. And no grumbling or rolling eyes. Let’s be honest. There aren’t enough jobs for EVERYONE to be a Big Research University Science Faculty member. And why should we all want to be? Who’s left to teacher the future science teachers, to write books, teach at community colleges, train technicians, mentor youth and young adults, advise politicians and voters? Each of these jobs is equally important.

As I’ve been discovering lately (mostly on my own), there are LOTS of alternative career opportunities available to scientists. In fact, science communication training is being talked about more and more as a necessary skill to be taught during graduate school. I sure wish I had the chance to take a class or internship while in graduate school. But it’s never too late.

I’ve come up with my own method (in progress) for how to become a better science communicator. 1) Recognize the average person doesn’t want to endure a long conversation with all of the sordid details. 2) Keep your language and explanations simple. I know it’s hard, but don’t rely on too much jargon or acronyms. If you use them, define them. 3) Explain via examples. Anecdotes are a great simple conversationally way to talk about important stuff. 4) Relate it something familiar or everyday. This instantly creates a relationship between the phenomena and the person. They can acknowledge how much they already know about something and may want to learn more about it.

Other references to check out:
Communicating Science: A Practical Guide
Because Science Matters

1 comment:

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