The science of science communication, summarized

No, do not do a Google image search for "scientist" if you do not want to be depressed and outraged.
Is this what scientists think of “the public”? Stock Photo from Getty via jacks of science.
I’ve identified as a scientist for most of my life, despite leaving at the end of my master’s to pursue a career in science communication. The biggest challenge for me in that career shift – next to learning to meet a zillion little deadlines every day in lieu of huge ones once every few years – was learning to be present and relatable.

By default I am the classic cerebral, shy, white-coat nerd type. I’m still constantly fighting my own tendencies to live inside my own head and spew evidence faster than others can process it – tendencies that the culture of academic science enhanced in me, even socialized into me and my former science colleagues. I think I’ve finally managed to internalize the notion that I’m not just trying to reach “the public” with science; in fact I am part of “the public.”

The point is, sometimes scientists need to be reminded of their own humanity. And who better to do that than humanities scholars?

There’s a whole issue of PNAS out dedicated to the science of science communication, based on a meeting of the same name that I at one point was dying to attend. It turns out many of the sessions were recorded and you can still view them online at the meeting website. Or you can go to the 2013 meeting!

I doubt I will make it to the 2013 meeting. But I have the videos and the special issue of PNAS to relish. One piece from the special issue, Communicating science in social settings, includes a summary and discussion of assumptions scientists often make about “the public” and “the media” that, based on lots of social science studies and extensive survey data, deserve further scrutiny. Here are my takeaways from that section:

  • 1. More information is not better.
    Resist the urge to summarize your entire body of scientific knowledge in one conversation. Make one point. Make it quickly and make it well.
  • 2. The public still trusts scientific institutions.
    There goes that excuse.
  • 3. Stories are much more powerful than lectures.
    How well do you remember the last three movies you saw? How well do you remember the last three two-hour lectures you saw?
  • 4. No one totally ignores his own worldview when interpreting scientific information.
    That includes scientists.
  • Tsunamis and the energy of atomic bombs

    Despite the title, this is not about the shaky state of several nuclear power plants in post-tsunami Japan. Rather, I want to fawn over Kenneth Chang’s piece, The Destructive Power of Water (NYT 12 Mar 2011). An excerpt:

    A typical bathtub holds 40 gallons or so of water. That is 330 pounds. A cubic yard of it, filling what at first glance seems a modest volume of 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, weighs nearly 1,700 pounds, as much as the Smart micro car.

    And when water is moving at 30 or 40 miles an hour, like the tsunami that inundated northern Japan on Friday, the heaviness of water turns deadly. Imagine 1,700 pounds hitting you at that speed, and each cubic yard of water as another 1,700 pounds bearing down on you. The destructiveness of a tsunami is not just one runaway car, but a fleet of them.

    Explanatory science writing at its best. I love, love, love coming up with these kinds of dimensional reference points so that people really get what I’m talking about (Chang, by the way, is an alumnus of the same SciCom program at UCSC that I just finished last year). One of the professors cited in the article estimates the energy of the tsunami was comparable to that of an atomic bomb. Except we’re talking about sheer mechanical destruction instead of harmful radiation. Unless you count the shaky nuclear reactors …

    Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about atomic bomb equivalents hitting Japan.

    The point is that water is heavy, and it packs a punch. And the idea brings to mind a director describing the filming of an iconic scene in the 1983 movie Flashdance. A huge bucket of water is dropped on Jennifer Beals’ chest while her character, a dancer, is auditioning. Skip to about 1:25 in this Irene Cara video to watch that moment:

    You can see her bracing quite hard against the chair, and watch her torso recoil in slow motion at the impact. According to the director, the first time they tried it, they used a lot more water and pretty much crushed her. And it hurt. Like trying to drink from a firehose.