Other Scientists and “The Public”

Over in Twitter-land, Ben Lillie of the Story Collider asked an interesting question, which sparked some discussion that he’s Storified on a Tumblr blog (just in case the date stamp wasn’t enough to mark this as 2013…). The original question was:

Partly I’m wondering if there is a reason to have an event series for “other scientists,” but also wondering about the bigger question: is there something about being a scientist that makes it easier to understand other bits of science? I suspect the answer is “a bit,” but really want to know specifically what one could say to scientists they couldn’t to a general audience.

The fundamental issue here, of course, is that “The Public” isn’t really a monolithic thing, but rather a collection of diverse groups with different interests and expertise, each of whom has a different level of understanding. Exactly what you mean by “The Public” is highly dependent on context, and “scientists who don’t do the same sort of thing I do” is a small but important subset of “The Public” as a whole.

As I said in the Twitter discussion, which you can see at Ben’s Tumblr post, if I were going to give a talk to a collection of biologists, I’d probably take my general-audience talk as a starting point. The only down-side risk of doing that is that some of them might feel patronized by it, but that’s actually a lot harder to do than you might think. One of the best bits of talk-giving advice I ever got came from Bill Phillips, who said after a practice talk in which I assumed wayyyy too much background knowledge, “Never underestimate the pleasure you give an audience by reminding them of things that they already know.”

This is an important tip, and one that I sometimes forget with bad results. Even if people know something already, that doesn’t mean they can immediately or easily recall it. A gentle reminder of what they already know helps ease them into the material they don’t know. It’s got to be done with care– you can’t just say “As we all remember from elementary school, atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons…” (unless it’s clear that you’re joking), but if you include a clear and concise statement of essential background information as you’re setting up the question your talk will answer, that gets the job done. Those who immediately recall the information will feel smart, because they immediately recall it. Those who recall it with some effort will be grateful for the refresher, and those who haven’t seen it before will have a bit of a chance to understand what comes next.

Also, as Sophia Collins notes during that Twitter discussion, scientists in general are absolutely awful about this, as a general matter. We hit this all the time as an undergraduate institution– when I invite colloquium speakers, I tell them they can assume that students have seen sophomore-level modern physics, which usually at least guarantees a talk that the faculty will mostly understand. (Some institutions are better than others about coaching their students and post-docs– Bill’s group at NIST, obviously, and the Walsworth group at Harvard have been very good about sending us speakers who successfully hit the undergraduate level.) If I’m not careful about that warning, I get a graduate-level research talk with about two slides of too-high-level introduction clumsily inserted at the beginning.

This isn’t a problem unique to physics, though. We have a Summer Seminar Series every year, where students who are on campus doing research give talks to the other students and faculty who are on campus, and many of those talks are just a blizzard of undefined technical jargon. Some years back, this drove me to produce a User’s Guide to Synthetic Chemistry Talks after the umpteenth student talk that I only understood in the vaguest outline. To be fair, they’ve been better about this in recent years, but I still dread (or just skip) the days when a bunch of chemistry students are talking. The biologists aren’t a whole lot better about weeding out or defining jargon, but they at least generally provide some concrete motivation as to why they’re doing inscrutable things with blobby photographs of gels that may or may not be fluorescing. And I’m sure they grumble about the physics students (or just skip their talks– it’s a lot easier to get lunch on days when the speaker list is mostly from physics).

So, circling back to Ben’s original question, if I were speaking to a group of biologists, I would start with the general public version of my talk, if they were speaking to me, I’d prefer to hear something that started from the general public version of their talk. There are a few areas where you can be a little more relaxed about things– scientists from another field won’t need quite as much explanation when you throw up a scatter plot, and will be somewhat more comfortable with the idea of experimental uncertainty– but if you’re going to err, it’s better to err on the low side than the high side.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    February 26, 2013

    As someone who has given a few general audience talks in the past, I agree with most of this. If you have to use jargon, define those terms early. Keep equations to a minimum. Many biologists will have taken some kind of freshman-level general physics, but there may be some who haven’t encountered physics since high school.

    One comment for theoretical physics types (and a few others): The more general your audience, the more important it is that you use SI units where practical. I get that in many of your plots your physical units will be normalized to some convenient physical quantity, but those of us who don’t work in your specialty may not immediately recognize it–tell us what your units are.

  2. #2 andre
    February 26, 2013

    Thanks to the link for your piece on chemistry from 2006 (well before I found this blog). I dabble in synthesis, but even for chemistry-only audiences limit that to one or two slides, because it’s not even interesting to most chemists.

    For talks for “other scientists”, I treat them like they’re students in my general chemistry class: they don’t know much about chemistry and probably are being forced (or at least pressured) to be there.

  3. #3 Barry
    PI
    February 26, 2013

    I used to tell everyone in the research group to explain their work to their parents every time they went home. The first goal was to get them to understand what they were doing and why it was important. And eventually, if they are reasonably successful, they would need to communicate their results and ideas to funding agencies inside academia or to coworkers and superiors in business or government. Jargon is convenient shorthand inside the lab but it is of little use elsewhere.

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