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.
  • Thank you, Canada, for Chris Hadfield

    We’ve sent hundreds of people into space already, but only one of them is Chris Hadfield:

    The best of Chris Hadfield on social media (This is from the Vancouver Sun)

    Commander Hadfield returns to Earth tonight. Hadfield, I’m sure your loved ones are happier when you’re safe and sound on Earth, but many of us wish you’d stayed out in space longer so we could keep learning and sharing your joy up there.

    This is what outreach can be. More and more I’ve come to think that the best and coolest science gigs are just too precious to waste on people who aren’t outright ambassadors for the greatest things science has to offer: a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, and the beauty of curiosity and knowledge.

    We are the seeders of collaboration clouds

    This is a ScienceOnline-inspired ditty, written with the other sciosatellite leaders and Bora, Karyn and Anton in mind:

    We nudge the primordial specks of the universe,
    Atoms upon atoms
    Closer, closer
    Till gravity seizes them, draws them into intimate quarters,
    And together, they birth bright stars and galaxies.

    We fine-tune the sequence of amino acids and the acidity and hyrophilicity of their environment
    Till the first protein self-assembles, a thing of great beauty and complexity.

    We share the code.

    Open-source life evolves and grows far beyond even what we imagined,
    Staring at atoms and molecules
    Dreaming of great things they might do together.

    We induce microbes to express a glue that binds them together,
    To form hardy biofilms where they help each other thrive.

    We tinker, hypothesize, develop models for conditions that cause
    Different species to assemble and thrive and endure together in a
    Grand ecosystem.

    We are the seeders of collaboration clouds.
    We are the engineers and the ecologists
    Of community.