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The Black Hole

Talking Science to Non-Scientists and What’s In It For You?

BY BETH | MAR 04 2010

Piggybacking off of Dave’s last post, which detailed ways that scientists can “help further the public knowledge of, and excitement about, scientific research,” with a specific focus on disseminating academic research and communicating with government, my posting today is going to take a look ways to increase science literacy and getting the general public excited about science.  A while back I wrote about why science literacy is important and listed some of the science outreach organizations that are working to increase science literacy, so I’m not going to rehash that here.  What I am going to talk about is:

  • -talking science to non-scientists
  • -talking to the media
  • -what’s in it for you

Talking Science to Non-Scientists
I recently read a book called “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath ((for the record, I have no affiliation with this book or its authors. I don’t get any money if you buy this book and I didn’t get a review copy or anything – I just picked it up from the library and I thought it was a really good book!)) that was all about how to get people to remember the things you say.  They used examples from a variety of areas – from advertisers who try to get people to remember their products to teachers who want their students to remember how mitosis works.  As I read the book, a lot of what they said resonated with me from my days as a science outreach volunteer ((well, I guess technically those days aren’t behind me, as I still volunteer as a science fair judge and I write for CurioCity magazine)).  They provide a framework in the form of the acronym “SUCCES,” which contains their keys to getting your message to “stick.” Using their framework, I have a few thoughts to share on “talking science to non-scientists”:

  • -make your message Simple (but not oversimplified) – when you are trying to explain what DNA is to grade 4s, you quickly learn how to strip concepts down to just the essentials. As a scientist, I find that I revel in the nuances, the eccentricities, the many variables in play in a given situation. But when trying to get scientific ideas across to someone who isn’t familiar with all those nuances, it makes a lot more sense to figure out “what’s the core message I’m trying to communicate?”  I’m not suggesting oversimplification, but I am suggesting that you don’t need to overcomplicate!  Can you explain your concept with a simple analogy?
  • -say something Unexpected – people love a good mystery! And what is an experiment if not a detective job to solve a mystery? Setting up a mystery at the start of your class/lecture motivates the audience to listen – they want to know the answer to the mystery!
  • -be Concrete – nothing makes science more concrete than doing a hands-on demonstration or experiment. Another aspect of concreteness is talking about how science comes into play in our everyday lives.  The movements of electrons are pretty abstract, but become a lot more real when you talk about the electricity that powers our iPods.
  • -show that the information is Credible – again, experiments really come into play here. If you can demonstrate that a light object and a heavy object accelerate at the same rate when dropped, it becomes a lot more believable than if someone just tells you that it is so.
  • -tap into Emotions – this includes things like “self-identity” (e.g., when you refer to the students in the class as “scientists,” it really seems to change their outlook on science in a positive way, it makes them care about doing science.   As well, it pays to think about the “WIIFY” – “what’s in it for you?” – talking with students about how science plays a role in their everyday life helps provide inspiration for learning about science. Last year I did a series of activities on “structures” with the grade 3-5 class that I was volunteering in and now none of us, myself included, travels over a bridge without thinking about its design and the forces acting on that bridge!
  • -tell Stories – telling stories is something I’ve always done rather instinctively when I teach (though that may be just because I like to tell stories!) Stories are a great way to demonstrate concrete ideas and show why science matters.

Talking To The Media
One specific group of people that I think scientists should really be talking to more is the media.  The general public gets a lot of their scientific information from the media and journalists may or may not (and I think its more often the “not”) have any training in science.  If you have the chance, it’s really worth getting to know journalists and helping to make the science they report on more accurate. I’ve had some media training (some good, some not so good ((the not so good was framed as “OK, we aren’t saying that journalists are out to get you, but here are some tips from keeping the big bad journalists from getting ya!”))) and I think that more scientists should learn a bit about journalism and talk to the media when they can.  And it should be a collaborative relationship between journalists and scientists, not one where each thinks the other is out to get them!
Things you can do
So now that you are all excited about promoting science literacy and getting people excited about science, what specific things can you do?  Here are a few ideas:

  • -Volunteer for a science outreach program in your area.  This could involve things like  doing experiments in classrooms, teaching science at summer camps/Guide Guide or Boy Scout troops, mentoring high school students in your lab or judging at science fairs.
  • -Sign up with your university’s “expert” database – the one that journalists will go to when they are looking for a scientific expert to comment on a news story.  With all your newfound knowledge about effectively communicating science to non-scientists, you will be the perfect expert for this job!
  • -Write a blog – Blog about cool things that are going on in research – your own or other stuff in the published literature
  • -Write a letter to the editor – Read a news article that provides incomplete – or even incorrect – information? Write a letter to the editor to set the record straight!

Now it’s your turn. What things have you done to promote science literacy and/or get people excited about science?  What tips do you have to share?

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  1. Judy Wearing / March 4, 2010 at 13:30

    Some questions for those communicating science to non-scientists:
    Who do you want to impress/reach?
    Who is most popular science written for?
    Who reads the publication that you are writing in?
    What accolades will come your way if you communicate science to non-scientists?
    Do those accolades depend on who you write for?