26 October 2010

Dude, you are speaking Romulan

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Chris Reddy (WHOI), LT Jarret Parker (USCG), and Rich Camilli (WHOI) aboard the Ocean Intervention III. The vessel was directly over the Deepwater Horizon blowout. (Credit Sean Sylva)

This story by Christopher Reddy was previously published in Eos.

During the height of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, I joined a group of engineers and other scientists to discuss the evidence for an oil plume, at least 22 miles long and about a mile wide, floating 3000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. As the chemist in the group, I wondered aloud about how we could exploit the aqueous solubilities of the petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes to understand plume formation. I suspected the key to knowledge lay in the plume’s chemical properties.

“Dude, you are speaking Romulan,” one of my colleagues blurted out. The engineers in the group gave me a look, and steered the conversation to the relative merits of different types of statistical processing of data collected in and around the plume. I don’t know from statistical processing, so I hit back: “Dude, you are speaking Romulan.”

As Star Trek fans know, Romulans are a race often at odds with the Federation (they later signed a peace treaty). Romulans speak in three dialects and write with square or rectangular letters. Telling your colleague that he or she is speaking Romulan is a friendly way of saying, “I don’t understand you,” or that you are using jargon, speaking too fast, using acronyms, or jumping over the natural progression of an argument or idea.

What is surprising is that we have these communication breakdowns despite my colleagues also being my friends. We work at the same institution. I have been to sea with them. I know their dogs, eat dinner at their homes, and jointly lament the standing of the Red Sox. Even though we know each other well, our differing scientific specializations can cause us to speak different languages. For us, our small group was willing to recognize these differences and set the ground rules for using the “Romulan phrase.”

Consider how different scientists might discuss the usage and effects of dispersants on oil slicks. A physical chemist will discuss the forces that create small droplets of oil out of large slicks; an oil spill scientist will argue the trade-offs of using dispersants to protect coastlines and wildlife versus increasing the oil content below the ocean surface; a microbiologist will explain how small droplets of oil created by dispersants are more available to microbes to degrade; and a toxicologist will explain how dispersed oil increases toxicity to aquatic life. What would happen if a layperson, member of the media, or policy maker received just one of these responses, or two?

Over the past decade, there has been a major push to train scientists to communicate with the public, media, and policy makers. Programs around the country and at many universities have workshops or courses for scientists and students. I coteach a graduate course entitled “How not to write for peer-reviewed journals: Talking to everyone else” and often beat the drum for improving science communication. At our first class we asked students to briefly describe their research. I can’t say I fully comprehended what several of them said.

Despite the stereotypes on TV and in movies, scientists have a complex and competitive culture. We aspire to be a “peer,” to learn the language, and to use that language to communicate and defend our science among learned peers. We tend to forget—or ignore—what it’s like not to understand. We go on autopilot.

So before teaching scientists how to speak to nonscientists, perhaps scientists should first learn how to speak to other scientists. Donald Kennedy, former editor of Science and president emeritus of Stanford University, mentioned this very problem in an editorial in that magazine in 2007. He wrote, “It’s clear that accessibility is a problem, because we’re all laypeople these days: Each specialty has focused in to a point at which even the occupants of neighboring [scientific] fields have trouble understanding each others’ papers.”

Almost every pressing scientific and environmental problem demands the attention of scientists from diverse disciplines as well as the expertise of economists, planners, and sociologists. With a little effort and less ego, we need to aim for a lingua franca that can be understood by a politician, a shrimp farmer, a toxicologist, a lawyer, an accountant, and a Romulan, too.

Christopher M. Reddy, Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.