28 July 2014

Want to Really Communicate Your Science to the Public? Go on a Journey and They’ll Follow

Posted by mcadams

Nicole Davi Journey

Nicole Davi, a William Paterson University researcher who studies tree rings, cores a white oak tree in Hutcheson Memorial Forest in Somerset County, N.J., to learn about past droughts. These trees are some of the last remaining “old growth” in New Jersey and date back to the 1600s. Photo Credit: Lizette Gesuden.

By John Calderazzo

Consider these three related stories.

Little Red Riding Hood sets off through the forest to Grandmother’s house. Mad Captain Ahab sails the Pacific in search of Moby Dick. You hit the road for a season of field work.

Yes, Red Riding Hood, Ahab, you. All related.

While it’s true that you’re not a famous literary hero (yet), your scientific inquiry routinely propels you on journeys that are every bit as real as the ones your fictional forebears once took. This is the case even if your research doesn’t require a physically perilous trip to Antarctica, the Amazon, or anywhere outside your lab.

This is because you are trained and probably addicted to act on your curiosity. Thus, you 1) regularly set forth for parts unknown, 2) often face unpredictable obstacles along the way, and 3) hope to learn or acquire something valuable or exciting. That’s the classic definition of a journey, probably the oldest and most common human story we have. Exodus, The Odyssey, even the seemingly endless quests of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the Harry Potter books and movies.

In her book for mainstream audiences, Deep-Ocean Journeys: Discovering New Life at the Bottom of the Sea (Basic Books, 1997), biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover takes readers with her on the research submersible ALVIN as she collects hydrothermal vent invertebrates that have photoreceptors despite living in the constant abyssal dark of the ocean floor. Thus, she tells a tale of mystery and discovery—the revelation, eventually, of a completely unexpected geothermal source of light. She tells you about a challenging physical and scientific journey combined. And even if you know nothing about the ocean, you listen, because you’re down there on ALVIN with her, feeling physically cramped, perhaps, but intellectually stimulated.

Research spun as this kind of story can make even a science-phobic national policy maker pay attention—and remember your point. Everyone “gets” the hunt for a Great White Whale, even if it’s as small as a nematode.

But how do you keep your soberly collected data from being exaggerated in a warrior meets monster story? And isn’t it enough to explain your work in plain English, without worrying about becoming the next Sylvia Earle or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

I’ll talk more about these issues in another blog, but remember, doing science is not the same as communicating it. Science comes first, with all the rigor, quiet reflection, and testing and re-testing that you’ve been trained for. Talking about it and making it interesting comes only later. And you don’t have to dramatize your results or inflate yourself into a “hero” to impress an audience.

But you can add touches of the physical journey that you or your research team in fact took. Early in your PowerPoint, consider throwing in some shots of the icebreaker you rode, the copter that dropped you off in the Brooks Range, even the absurdly packed university van that took you just a few miles down the road.

Let’s see that rigged up camera that let you take time lapse photos, or the zooty equipment in your lab where your journey of discovery unfolds in the microbiotic realm. Show yourself or a teammate decked out in reflective clothing next to the oozing lava, or in scuba gear to measure the acidity of coral reefs.

Tell your story, about your research. Take a journey and others will happily come with you.

— John Calderazzo is Professor of English at Colorado State University and co-director of Changing Climates @ CSU. Calderazzo moderated the Sharing Science in Plain English panel at the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting.