30 April 2018

Science conversation, not communication

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Showing students how to drop Mentos in Diet Coke without getting caught in the eruption fallout! (CampSpark at Rice University in ByHouston, TX, Summer 2017. Photo credit: Melody Tan)

By Laura Carter

What gets you to pay attention to the news? Probably a relation to your life in some way, right? That’s how advertising works and products are sold. At its core, science communication is essentially the selling of information. And it’s something scientists do constantly! What they sometimes fail to do is consider the feedback, the review, or the exchange with their buyers, which is necessary, as importance to the general public is why grant foundations are rapidly requiring outreach.

For scientists, “publish or perish” is a very real threat. To become accepted, a hypothesis must be published in a reputable journal, requiring the scientist to first convince the journal editor and peer reviewers. Then it must become widely read and cited, requiring them to convince other researchers via conference presentations and collaboration. Finally, it needs to become consensus or basic knowledge, requiring them to convince students via textbooks and lectures.

In other words, the success of a scientist’s career relies heavily on strong communication skills, contrary to popular misconception that scientists are “bad communicators.” But that’s all one-way and it’s directed at one type of audience: other academics.

It may be tempting, then, to call this process an echo chamber—scientists interacting only with each other within the walls of academia, constantly amplifying or reinforcing their own beliefs. But, the only way hypotheses get thoroughly tested, improved, and eventually agreed upon as theories is if there are arguments, contradictions, corrections, and retractions—the converse of reinforcement.

 That’s the scientific method; it’s how science progresses.


Explaining to refugee high schoolers at Rice University’s CampSpark in Houston, TX how bubbles of volcanic gasses, like carbon dioxide, cause violent eruptions in the same way Mentos causes a foam eruption of the carbon dioxide dissolved in Diet Coke. (Photo credit: Melody Tan)

So, if it’s not a communication problem, is miscommunication caused by a knowledge gap between those with terminal degrees and “the general public”? That is like asking a French local for directions to the Eiffel Tower in English. The non-English speaker isn’t the problem. It’s the tourist, loudly repeating their incomprehensible statement, expecting to get different results. The message is not incomprehensible because of the content of the statement, rather the method of communication.

The “gap” between scientists and the public is more a language barrier.

When publishing in technical journals is key and the audience of those journals are other technical speakers, then learning how to translate into plain (universal) language is not a priority. Why learn French when you are only there 1 week of your years of life?

Well, because if you want to get your message across—and get your Eiffel Tower Instagram picture—then science communication must be a two-way conversation. Like any language course, immersion is important, often achieved through conversation practice.

When I started my career in geology, I had to learn to speak science in the first place from others fluent in it. My advisor would send back drafts of my early publications slathered in red marks adorned with comments about “flowery, non-scientific language.” There are even different dialects of science; I’ve seen jargon-related misunderstandings between two Earth Scientists who differ only in the geologic location of the rock type they study. Recently, at ComSciCon-Houston, I was taken aback by biology graduate students informing me, another science graduate student, that I needed to clarify the word “magma,” just as I baffled them with my uncertainty of the meaning of “protein.”

As a geologist whose research aims to better understand Earth’s climate variations, I am conscious of climate-change denial. Typically, rejection is the result of a contradiction with a previous belief or understanding, instilled by parents, politics, or religion. How is that any different than scientists amongst themselves, with contrasting arguments or contrarian suspicions? In that situation, we seek resolution by studying the opposing side so as to effectively connect and address all points.

In order to reach that last step of the scientific process, ereryone from academics to the public, needs to accept the new hypothesis. If we as scientists want to reach the public or affect policy, or even understand and support each other, forget #scicomm. Let’s all start more #sciconv: science conversations.

– Laura Carter is a recent doctoral graduate from the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science at Rice University. A version of this article was written and edited as part of ComSciCon-Houston 2018