How scientists can help with effective science communication

Published: 22-Nov-2018

Science communication refers to the process of effectively relaying the facts and findings from scientific studies to other scientists, non-experts and the general public

This helps people to understand the broader implications of scientific studies for society. Here, Maya Raghunandan, a freelancer for online platform for freelance scientists Kolabtree and molecular biologist, explains how scientists can help with effective science communication.

The effectiveness of science communication can impact science policy related legislation and monetary budget allocations from funding agencies for further scientific research. The definition of science communication may seem straightforward, but current practices are far from perfect.

The birth and spread of false information

In this age, a vast amount of information is at everyone’s fingertips. Whereas each media platform offers unique ways to share science, there is the downside of prevalent misleading or false information.

Often, the media oversimplifies scientific information to make it suited for lay audiences. A popular practice, known as “infotainment” focuses on describing new scientific discoveries in an entertaining fashion.

Frequently, to “sensationalise” scientific evidence, journalists generalise facts to the point of being overreaching or worse — blatantly wrong.

Unfortunately, it is these sensational headlines that lend themselves beautifully to being wildly circulated in the media. A study in Science found that fake news was 70% more likely to be retweeted than true news.

A good example of false news in science is the Planet X conspiracy that planetary system ‘Nibiru’ is going to collide with the Earth and cause the end of the world in the early 21st century.

Although this apocalyptic theory has been widely debunked and rejected by scientists and astronomers worldwide including NASA, it is still being periodically circulated on the Internet.

The root cause of poor communication

Scientists often use specific jargon laden with complex terminologies when describing their science. Although peers in the same field can understand each other, this poses a serious obstacle to communicating to the public.

One of the major underlying reasons for this behavior is the large divide in what scientists assume the public knows and what the public knows.

Also, scientists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields do not receive formal training on communicating science.

Tell a story

Scientists must pay close attention to the language they use. The art of storytelling has the ability to unify science and humanities.

Some scientists who excel at this, such as Olivia Ambrogio, Mitchell Waldrop and Megan Watzke, are great examples to follow. Reading examples of good science communication will help scientists develop their own communication style.

Participate in informal science outreach

Engaging in a narrative with broader strokes is more effective to get people “hooked” to learn more. Scientists must try to elaborate on what inspired them in the first place to this field of work — how would these findings help solve a current problem in the world?

During their scientific training, aspiring scientists should be exposed to opportunities that involve informal science outreach, for a synergistic growth. In fact, integrating science communication sans jargon as a part of the curriculum can go a long way in bridging the divide between scientists and lay public.

Zoom out

Because of their vast knowledge, it can be challenging for a scientist to take a step back and see a bird’s eye view of the problem at hand.

To explain specific scientific details to a lay audience, scientists must use simple and succinct language, which will encourage them to think broadly of the bigger picture and reflect on the importance of their research and the implications it holds for the world.

Science communication can be a rough and time-consuming terrain for naive and inexperienced scientists. However, backed by guidance from expert science writers, novices can develop coherent and effective science communication strategies that will help bridge the gap between scientists, journalists and the public.

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