00:00 – Introduction
00:50 – Why scientific communication is boring
02:01 – Why good communication is important
03:30 – The modern approach of the public
06:10 – Effective steps to better your communication
07:05 – Don’t just share facts, share your story
09:55 – Avoid jargon
10:45 – Don’t be boring, be passionate
12:10 – Social media
13:42 – better communication = better funding
15:20 – Take-aways
18:48 – Ending and outro
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This week on The Method Section, Tom tackles the task of Scientific Communication. In an age where science is so fascinating and mind blowing why is it communicated in such a boring way? Find out why this is an important step to take and how you can improve your scientific communication. Music by: Joakim Karud – https://soundcloud.com/joakimkarud.
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The Method Section: Scientific Communication – Transcript
Tom: Hello Ladies and gentlemen, I am your host Tom Jenks and today I will be talking about scientific communication, why it’s important, the modern approach and effective steps that you can employ to communicate better. Stay tuned to The Method Section.
Tom: Yes. Today in The Method Section, a short form series aimed at scientists, I will be tackling the task of scientific communication. Now I’ve decided to look at this because science is so intriguing, so fascinating and mind blowing, but it is communicated so boringly, especially if you’re not in the scientific world. So there are three main ways this is done at conferences and symposiums. You know, someone stands on the stage behind a podium or a lectern and they kind of lecture the audience. Scientific posters and overstuffed powerpoints are more than commonplace and are just boring and hard to look at. And then you’ve got the wall of text journal Articles, which even for scientists who are used to looking at them every day, it is hard. It can be confusing, especially if there’s new terms and it’s quite exclusive to people within the scientific world already. I’m not saying we should abandon these, obviously we should keep them. They follow the standard scientific method and presenting of ideas that have been around for hundreds of years and are a very good way to spread ideas however only to other scientists. So what we realize now is that academia should be responding to the new way that people are sharing scientific information and that is through the Internet.
Tom: So before we discuss how, I just want to cover why it’s so important. Scientific betterment helps everyone no matter who they are. Atheistic, agnostic, religious, it doesn’t matter. Everything around you comes from science, the phone, you’re listening to this on the computer. You are listening to this on the headphones. You are listening to this with your car. And I could, you know, the list just goes on and on. Everything around you is some way linked to scientific innovation. Now when you include people and you don’t alienate people, you have lots of people behind an idea. That idea could be science or specific parts of science. Having people behind one idea gives that idea power and creates a movement to help better everyone’s experience on this planet. The scientific community is facing a massive communication challenge. As we fail to expand outside of our professional and social circles far too often, you know, we’re, we’re, we’re quite happy to speak with people with inside our social or professional circles about the work they are doing or we are doing because we understand, but we find it very hard to approach someone who we think has no knowledge of what we’re going to talk about and we think it’s going to be quite hard. This is a barrier we need to break down.
Tom: Which brings us on to the modern approach. So we are in a post truth world where more and more people care about what the stories make them feel rather than the facts actually within them. This can easily be seen both with the Brexit campaign in 2016 and the American government campaign and also just a lot of the time online. An example that I saw in a Ted talk was a group of mothers, you know, with their teething babies, they are sold these necklaces with amber in them are said to stop the teething or reduce the pain that babies experience when they’re teething. And of course they buy them for extortionate prices and there’s actually no truth behind it at all butt because it says on the advertisement it’s “proven” and all these kinds of things they buy into it anyway, the Internet also makes it very easy to go online and confirm your own beliefs and conspiracies. Now this is especially prevalent in the anti-vaxxer, flat earther kind of thing, but even not specifically tied to conspiracies because you can go online and you can find information both for and against everything. Literally everything, as I just mentioned, whether the earth is flat or not to most of us, it’s a very simple answer. It is no, but to the flat earthers, it’s a yes. With these kinds of things. If some people are predispositioned to be maybe slightly naive, how can you know what is true? And as I just said, tribalism is so potent. You can go onto Facebook or other communities online and find like-minded people. And once you are in that community and speaking to people who think similar ways, you begin this self-perpetuating process where your belief about a certain thing becomes more and more and more rational and you can’t understand why other people don’t believe what you do. In order to combat this, we really need effective scientific communication that brings it into the 21st century, that catches up to the technological innovations that are happening in our world and are not trapped behind social academic barriers that they seem to be largely at the moment.
Tom: So that kind of covers why it’s so important and where we stand in with the modern approach of the general public. So to combat this, I mean people are probably thinking, what can I do? What is stuff that I can do to help combat this? So I’ve compiled together some effective steps that should be quite useful just to employ with your research. At the end of the day, this is bettering you, your research and your work. And I’ll come onto that a bit more later. So scientists I think in the past have rarely been taught how to communicate out of writing a scientific paper. And I think it’s a fairly recent thing where in my course we had to give public presentations of our work to help us with this communication process, but it’s still only limits us within the scientific realm. It limits us to giving presentations to other scientists maybe at a conference.
Tom: A lot of people find it hard, especially if they’ve not had the training or if they’re in like a social situation or family setting, to not just list off facts, to not just say, well you’re wrong because of this. And this brings me to my first point. You cannot just share facts because just like with the tribalism and the flat earthers it only affects the people that are already interested. If I’m talking about Marine Mammal vocalization and I’m telling everyone the different sperm whale codas mean different things between mother and calf pairs. That’s cool. And that’s very interesting. However, it might only be interesting to those people who are already interested. How would I get that to a wider audience? So you can’t just turn up and say “you’re wrong”. You need to be engaging and interested in their opinion no matter what really. And it’s all about being inclusive. Weigh up their opinion, get a good summary of their opinion going. Maybe you can repeat it back to them and they can tell you where you’ve gone wrong with their opinion. And once you have a good understanding, that’s where you can weigh your opinion against others. This can work in a personal one-to-one or a one to many, then they’re always going to be lots of people challenging your ideas. But what you’ll find from this is that maybe you’ll be the one learning. Now I’m not just talking about, uh, people fighting Anti-Vaxxers or flat earthers. This can even be, you know, with peers, you may disagree on something scientifically and both have evidence that you haven’t considered before.
Tom: With this comes telling your story and your ideas. This is why you can’t just state the facts because no one wants to listen to someone rambling facts off at them, you need to share your stories. You need to share your ideas. And this in turn makes room for the facts to be shared and is far more interesting and far more engaging. People have been passing down stories for generations. Humans are wired to listen to personal stories and within them you can tie the facts that you want to get across. You need to also invoke within this story why it is important to the people you are trying to tell because whether it’s other scientists, maybe it’s important to their research. You’re not just researching the human structure, you’re researching the human structure because it helps with their research or if it was to the general public, you’re researching the human structure because it helps save lives. You need to tie in some kind of connection to your audience. You need to know your audience.
Tom: My next point is to avoid jargon. Hardly anyone outside of the scientific circle reads papers. It is hard and it is confusing as I said earlier, even for those who do read them on a daily basis. Now by this I don’t mean dumb it down. I mean just simplify as if you are writing your abstract for your paper. As Einstein said, “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. This means making your work accessible to everyone, allowing people to care, giving the people the opportunity to find out what it is you’re doing and allowing them to be interested in it, not shutting them out.
Tom: The next point is a rather simple one. Don’t be boring. A lot of the time when you are sharing your work and you are sharing your research, this is something that you have been working on for months, if not years. In a lot of cases, show your passion. Show why you are still working on this project, why you are still interested and the amazing research that you are providing and the discoveries that you are finding. Show your passion. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about what you are doing and your work. At the same time, be professional. You want to be respected. You want to show people that you are a source of authority on your subject and you want people to be able to approach you because after all, there is no better spokesperson for your work than you. You can hire someone to write the best speech in the world and you can hire a public speaker to speak about it. However, when it comes to follow up questions and things like this, you are going to be the one that knows and you are going to be able to answer that in an effective way. Now this isn’t about becoming the best public speaker in the world by any means. Of course it’s not and not everyone will. However, moving in on this era of humanity that we are at now with technology, we do need to pace ourselves alongside with it. One of the best ways to do this is through social media. I know many scientists use Instagram to show off cool pictures of their work, but at the same time raising awareness for what they are doing and I guess just science in general. This kind of interaction speaks both to other scientists and to the public because the public are getting background access to stuff that they might find interesting but won’t have it otherwise. There are lots of scientists that I know are doing conservation and they show lots of pictures of them in action while sharing important information about where the public can help or work that they are doing or other areas that might be interesting. Social media is your friend and weapon. Another great place to do this is reddit. I’m sure a lot of people are listening know about reddit and especially r/Science. This is one of the best places to engage because not only do you build rapport with a world wide fan base, I guess, or a worldwide community, but you can interact with them very personally and very quickly. Reddit hosts ask me anything, events or you could host your own and this is, acts as a sort of interview you. Say you’re going to be at your computer on Reddit, on your account at say 5:00 PM you’ll be there for an hour. People could come along and ask you questions about your research.
Tom: You might have gotten to this point and you’re still wondering, why does this matter? Why should I bother putting in this effort? And if nothing else, will convince you something that will is funding people that you have got to communicate to are also people who fund your research. Whether that’s through taxes or scientific bodies. Funding is very important. It is the driver of scientific innovation and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it. However, there are three key points. Funders give money to fix issues that they understand. If they don’t understand what is happening or where their money will be used, why will they fund you? Funders give money to issues. People are talking about. If you have managed to get the conversation rolling about your research, about your plans for the research and what you provide, they are far more likely to give you this funding that you want because they know people are interested. Lastly, funders give money to things that benefit them or their representatives, whether this is public or private. This comes down to both the first two points. If they understand and they know that people are talking about it and they know the benefits that either themselves , the public or private organization that they represent or will get from it, then they definitely will give you funding or highly consider it.
Tom: From this then there are a couple of takeaways. I just want to go back over. Firstly, you will not reach everyone, accept it now. That is fine though. Some people do not want to be approached. Some people do not want to be spoken to and that is fine. It is important to leave the table open so that people can join the conversation of the own free will. You need to be inclusive not exclusive, open not closed and accepting not rejecting of anyone’s opinions or beliefs. Just because you are right doesn’t mean that people will listen to you and that can be sometimes are the hardest thing that people accept is they’ve got the research, they’ve got the results and no one even bats an eyelid their way. You need to be engaging. You need to be truthful both to you and to your story. A second point is you need to be accessible. If you want your research to have an impact in this world, you need to do more than just publish. This means trying to get your work on the news or writing blogs about your work using social media like Facebook, Instagram and Reddit, like I mentioned earlier, you need to show that you are there, you are ready to engage and you want people to know about what you are doing. It’s not enough anymore to kind of just publish your paper and be done with it because it will stay within that scientific circle and if you truly believe in your work and why you’re doing it, maybe you don’t want it to be stuck there. Lastly, you need to be clear. We are so used to being specific and very narrow in our thinking. I know at university we are trained to be, you know, very concise. However, don’t lose your ability to generalize. This is what will pull you through in the public world. This is what will set you apart from other scientists who have lost this ability. Again that is not dumbing it down but simplifying they’re very different things and if people are interested and they would like to know more, they can ask you in detail and then you can give the detailed answers that you want to
Tom: Alan Watts had a quote that I think kind of summed this up quite well about being inclusive to everyone and he says, you know, you can’t convince someone who believes the world is flat that it’s not flat. They’ll look out the window and see that it is, what you need to say to that person then is, all right, let’s go find the edge.
Tom: Communicating in this post truth era is going to be the next driving force of science and we will need to catch up and respond to the way the world is changing. The Internet is both your friend and your ally in this endeavor. However, as you guys know, The Method Section is a short form podcast so I will end it there. Please feel free to get in touch with us and check out all the latest goings on conductscience.com send us messages and posts at Facebook and Twitter. You can find us by searching @ConductScience. And if you have any questions, use the #AskConductScience. We’d be more than happy to answer them either on this show or on the main show with Mitch as well. Next week on the method section, I will be talking about the Stanford prison experiment. One of the most famous psychological experiments ever conducted by Dr. Phillips Zimbardo at Stanford University. And we will be going over why the methodologies were somewhat controversial and the data that came out of it. Thank you very much again for listening and I’ll see you guys A-next time.