Communicating science across fields

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Today I gave a class to PhD candidates on the challenge of communicating science to a broader audience without dumbing down.

First I did a mixer where each member chose a word from their research, something that was challenging them or very much on their mind. I told them that “intelligibility” was on mine, and explained briefly what it meant in my context. So they wrote up a word and explained theirs in their own context to the other participants. That’s a classic, and it was a very nice way in for this interdisciplinary group, who hadn’t met before, but will be working together more closely in the future.

Then I gave them a presentation that I’m quite happy with: Communicating science across fields (pdf). It’s based on a number of books I’ve found very enlightening, including:

  • Harry Collins/ Richard Evans: Rethinking Expertise, 2010
  • Carolyn Johnsen (ed.): Taking Science to the People. A Communication Primer for Scientists and Engineers. U. of Nebraska Press 2010

What didn’t work quite so well was the task that followed: Translating science basics (pdf). The basic idea was fine, but I wanted them to do not only the interview, but also collaborate on writing a text together that could serve as an abstract of their project. Under the expert coaching of Elisabeth Sillmann, a professional graphic designer specializing in scientific publications, they’re making science posters in this 3-day workshop, and need the texts to go on them. It would have been better to leave the interview as an interview, and after sleeping over it, to have them write up the poster texts separately tomorrow. In fact, that’s what might actually happen. In any case, tomorrow we’ll even things out.


4 Responses

  1. I remember those lines in The Demon-Haunted World, the ones that you quote in your first presentation. They become more unnervingly true every year.

  2. Absolutely.
    Perhaps, as Leslie Fink writes (in Taking Science to the People ed. Carolyn Johnsen) we’re getting out of the secretive culture of Cold War science that implanted the idea that we’ll never really know what They Are Doing, anyway.
    There seems to be a movement underfoot in academia to overcome the communication barriers and educate the public, promoted by increasing demands on scientists to document what they are doing, including the need to deliver lay reports.
    And then the internet age is switching on our ‘satiable curiosity.

  3. Anne: Yes, there’s a very visible attempt to make science more accessible and accountable. I follow a lot of scientists on Twitter and through their blogs, and this is something that concerns them deeply. They know what’s at stake, and that we can’t keep sleepwalking our way into the future as we have been doing. People need to know the consequences of their everyday choices, and science has a role to play in educating them. Unfortunately, for every couple of steps forward there’s a step back, such as when a high-profile research org sniffs at online discussion and demands that all criticism be peer-reviewed.

  4. Hi Stan,
    the prestige thing is silly, but on the other hand, peer review and communication across fields are entirely different, and both unmatched in the way they challenge and draw out a scientist. I’m enjoying watching a group of natural and social scientists as they try to get to the bottom of each other’s work. They know the mechanics of peer review well enough to polish what they know and cover up any trouble spots. But scientists from other fields ask rather different questions. It’s certainly a very quick fix for waffling.
    Today we noticed that the various participants were using terms such as governance and mitigation differently, attaching meanings specific to their own context.
    This is great. Wish I could teach like this every day.

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