For a very long time, I have argued that many scientists are excellent communicators.
I have seen a number of scientists talk over the years and the experience has been mostly very positive. Even if I limit myself only to what I saw over the last couple of months, every single scientist lecture was riveting.
So, where does the “scientists are bad communicators” trope come from?
I think it comes from the people looking at the results – a country whose government (and population) does anti-scientific stuff. They look at various factors that may lead to that state and decide that the audience, while uninformed, is interested in science; that science education is too difficult to fix; that movies portray scientists in a bad light (which may be wrong); that the media does not cover science enough, etc. How do they deduce from this that if only scientists could talk better we can make progress, I don’t know.
I have written at length (I know it’s long, but it’s worth reading) a critique of this conclusion. There are not enough scientists to, even if they were all brilliant speakers and spoke every day, make any difference. The problem is with the “push” versus “pull” models of communication. Many scientists communicate well, but are only allowed by the mainstream media to use the “pull” model which attracts only those who are already interested in science. The examples of “pull” media for science are popular science magazines, news sections of scientific journals, science sections of newspapers, science blogs, science-related radio shows, science-related shows on cable TV, i.e., all those places where people have a choice to seek this information or bypass it.
It is the mainstream media that controls all the “push” venues – the most popular print, radio and TV venues that are seen by everyone and where science could, potentially, be mixed in with the news coverage of other areas of life, thus delivering science stories to people who otherwise would never seek them. And it is there that the scientists have no access, certainly no access on their own terms, and thus it is there where the science communication is blocked. Scientists communicate all the time, and do it well, but only to the already receptive audience which actively seeks them – in special sections, or self-made media, carefully quarantined away from the mainstream news. The corporate media actively prevents the scientists from access to the non-receptive yet potentially interested audience. Thus, it is no surprise that some of the purveyors of the “scientists are bad communicators” trope are themselves journalists, parts of the corporate media culture and thus oblivious to the ways their own professions hinders the communication of science (and thus building trust in scientists) to the masses.
I am not the only one to think so.
But there is another reason why some people accept and push the “scientists are bad communicators” trope. Their understanding of communication – what it is and how it works – is out-dated. It is pre-Web, and they do not grok how the Web changed everything. All the academic literature on communication published earlier than late 1990s is now useless: not just outdated, but wrong.
@DrPetra said it succintly on Twitter the other day:
the ‘scientists are bad communicators’ still implies some one-off talk/top down approach. Public engagement = a dialogue
And this is the key. The “scientists are bad communicators” trope requires thinking in a one-to-many mode of communication. It is stuck in the mid-20th century way of thinking about science communication: the scientists give lectures, science cafes, write popular articles, perhaps a Sagan-wannabe shows up on TV. All of that is one-to-many. And all of that deals with communication in terms of “I am the expert, I talk, you listen”. But, a couple of decades into the Web era, audience does not accept this mode of communication any more. This kind of communication does not increase but actually decreases the trust in the person who is doing the talking – “who is this haughty guy and who does he think he is to talk down to us and not listen to us or even let us respond?”
If you were at ScienceOnline2010 or watched it from afar, especially the media/journalism ‘track’ of conversations, you would have noticed that pretty much everyone there came to the same conclusion – the one-to-many model of communication is out-dated. It is a part of one’s toolkit, but on its own it can potentially do more harm than good if one’s goal is the popular trust in science and scientists.
The way to gain popular trust in science is not so much to communicate one’s expertise to passive lay audience, as it is to engage. The other day I tweeted that I am at my best as a science communicator when I am answering someone’s question on Aardvark. Why? Because it is social. It is a two-way street. Even more so than blogs or Twitter, because of technical inefficiencies in these platforms in ‘seeing one’s audience’.
So, while the ability to give a riveting talk is still a great talent to have (or at least something that can be practiced and made perfect), it is not just not enough – it ignores what is really important in gaining the respect and trust of the lay audience: and that is to find the un-interested lay audience and make them interested. The “push”, not the “pull” (see clip).
How do you find and get attention of un-interested audience? You go where they are and engage, not lecture them. If you cannot get access to the mainstream media’s hot spots, you go around them, to where the people are: online. On Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, LiveJournal, blogs, Google Buzz, aardvark, etc. Engage, don’t preach. The same goes in the classrooms – don’t give guest-lectures: engage the students in discussion, experiments, even Citizen Science.
The best public speakers, those who get invited to do one-to-many lectures, often diverge from the traditional model and insist on being interrupted with questions during the talk, and leave plenty of time for many questions afterward. This is also why an unconference is much more useful (and pleasant) and more effective than a traditional conference. Now that the people formerly known as audience can talk back, they expect to be given the opportunity to talk back and putting any barriers to this pisses them off – thus you fail as a communicator.
So, not understanding the modern principles of communication in the Web era and relying on outdated academic literature on communication pre-Web is not just outdated, but wrong. Teaching others about this kind of communication as if it was the latest thinking in the field is not just “oh well, outdated but won’t hurt” – it actually hurts our cause! It teaches scientists, who are already good communicators, how to become worse at it. Instead of teaching them how to break out of the kabuki of science communication it teaches them how to get even more entrenched in it and to even more fiercely defend the kabuki and the academic formal hierarchy that the kabuki represents. This sets us all back.