SCI-ART LAB

Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Clarity on who you are writing for is important before sitting to write a science story

Burns et. al. (203, pp.183) define science communication as:

  • “…the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding.”

Science communication is often analogously and interchangeably referred to as science outreach, public engagement, widening participation, and/or knowledge exchange.

Whatever the definition is there seems to be two different views on science communication.

The first one is from the world of science and people who rule it i.e., scientists. They want 'high quality', 'totally science oriented' communication without any 'distractions'. This type of communication can be understood by only people who have some training in science. Therefore, experts speak to only each other, and, worse, disdain colleagues who translate their work in a simple way for the public as “dumbing down” scientific ideas. They say too often it is the science that gets simplified instead of the language making it useless.

They tell the story of Einstein in this connection. He said if you cannot explain science in simple terms, you yourself haven't understood it properly.
But think about how Einstein explained relativity to his colleagues using all scientific terms and formulas and how he did it to others when he said - “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”  For scientists that are trained for several years in the usage of scientific jargon and in the way of doing things scientifically that really sounds like a dumb explanation. "Where is science in this?", they ask. 

But most of the scientists don't realize that man on the street finds it difficult to understand when science is communicated in a 'high standard' manner. Far worse, this makes the latter run away from the subject and people who are dealing with it. And this mode of communication again needs non-experts to translate the difficult part of science to the public. This alternative is much dumber: public perception of science based on the opinions of non-experts who are often driven by irredeemable motives is getting worse.

When scientists judge an article, they look for pure science, jargon, correct presentation, strict 'quality' defined by labs and a language understood by only intellectuals and experts.

Science is the best path to understand our world and if the general public don’t understand science, it is our job to help them. But common people don't understand the importance of science and are not even interested in it. Part of the disconnect is in levels of education. For many people science is the subject they tried to avoid in school and college. And many scientists have a hard time “dumbing it down” to the levels of  'illiterates with regard to science'.

The second view is completely different from the first one (are scientists and lay men parallel lines?!). Several people who never had any training in science told me they find it easy to understand science when told like a story of fiction ( What?! Not like a fact science is made of ?), incorporating science in the story in a lighter manner and easy to understand. Detailed explanations of scientific terms in a simple language is highly appreciated here.

Men on the street judge the story on the 'easily readable and understandable' aspects.

As a science communicator it is very important to have a clarity on who you are writing for before attempting it. The skills you have and how you are using them to do the communication are more important than the definition itself. We are translating a difficult language  into a more understandable form.  

It is very important that not only people of science but everybody who reads what you write understands completely and correctly what you are trying to say. If a large section of people don't know the facts what is the use of having them at all? The job of science writers is not only seeing the things in light themselves but also showing them in this way to others too. If it isn’t shared, it isn’t science. Science requires collaboration, which requires right communication.

The whole idea of language is to communicate things. When you are in a different zone of language to yours, you must try to speak in the language that is commonly understood. Otherwise it will be like a bird singing or a dog barking or a tiger roaring but people around can rarely comprehend the effort you are making. The whole communication system fails.

Scientists think about this before sitting to write or judging a write up.

References:

Burns TW, O'Connor DJ, Stocklmayer SM: Science communication: A contemporary definition. Public Underst Sci. 2003; 12(2): 183–202. Publisher Full Text

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Replies to This Discussion

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Based on the current literature, and the results of this study, the following broad definitions are offered for each of the four considered topics:

Outreach: a one-way discourse, in which scientists communicate their research to the general public.
Public Engagement: a two-way dialogue, in which scientists converse with members of the general public in a mutually beneficial manner.
Widening Participation: any activity that engages with social groups under-represented in HE, in order to encourage them to attend university.
Knowledge Exchange: any activity that involves engagement with businesses, public and third sector services, the community and the wider public, and which is monitored for funding purposes.

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