Scientists communicating their science

Christie Wilcox has a great post over at Science Sushi about why scientists should be on social media. I don’t disagree with anything she says, and I try to do it myself (see: the twitter and G+ links to the left… I also recently signed up for tumblr which is kind of fun). But sometimes the social media is just the first step.

Last night I, along with fellow graduate students Sky Brubaker and Jillian Astarita, gave a lecture for the Science in the News lecture series about how an immune response gets started. The SITN fall lecture series is something I’ve done for the past few years, first with a lecture on autoimmunity (slides here [pdf]) and last year I talked about the good and bad bacteria living in our gut (slides and video).

Christie’s whole post is worth a read, but she said one thing that I think is particularly important:

It’s not that non-scientists are too stupid to get science. Far from it. The average person simply doesn’t have the specific vocabulary to understand a scientific paper[...] This jargon wall breeds distrust.

After working on this talk for months, knowing my audience and trying as hard as I could to be clear, when I gave a practice talk last week, I still managed to slip into comfortable ways of speaking about biology, which for me means using jargon. I care about science communication and I think it matters, and I still managed to talk about proteins being “expressed” when I could have said they were “made,” or mentioned a “virion” instead of a “virus.” It’s hard to change the way you speak about something so familiar, and I think that’s why so many scientists avoid it (though Christie is right – we have no one to blame but ourselves when it gets misinterpreted).

But people aren’t stupid, and despite the fact that this topic (with receptors and cytokines and phagocytes) is more complicated than most of the ones Science in the News covers, it was clear from the audience questions that people DO get it, as long as we take the time to make it accessible.

PS – At least one girl was there because she found out about it on this blog… Thanks for coming!

PPS – The slides and the video from last night’s lecture will hopefully be up soon. I will post them here when they’re ready.

Comments

  1. #1 Martin
    September 30, 2011

    I like your commitment to understanding of science for “normal mortal”:D

    p.s. great blog

  2. #2 rafael matias
    September 30, 2011

    If people have managed to understand concepts of the series “Cosmos” of Carl Sagan, it’s a piece o cake to understand Biology terms

  3. #3 Kevin
    September 30, 2011

    @ Martin – Hey! Your comment worked this time :-)

    @ Rafael – Sounds like you’re saying biology is less complicated, and I don’t know if I agree, but it’s a similar problem. Cosmos was dealing with things on a massive scale, biology on an often tiny scale.

    But ultimately the point I agree with is, all of this stuff is comprehensible, if we just take the time to make it comprehensible.

  4. #4 Hannah
    October 1, 2011

    Hello from the humanities side of the spectrum! As a lit person I think there’s nothing better than the perfect word. “Expressed” doesn’t mean “made.” There’s a reason people prefer it, and it’s not crazy to ask an intelligent audience to pay attention to the language you’re using.

    Jargon for jargon’s sake, though, that’s cruel. In the humanities it seems to be a way to prove your qualifications: “I’m so smart even my colleagues don’t understand me.” For example: virions make you sound cool but if I hear the word ontology one more time this week, I may implode.

    And sorry I couldn’t make your lecture. Wrong part of the continent, I think.

  5. #5 Kevin
    October 1, 2011

    @ Hannah – Yes, there’s a reason biologists use the word expressed, but “made” means everything that I needed to communicate to that particular audience. I could have used “expressed,” but then I would have had to define the word (which I didn’t think to do), or have less people understand me. I think I was trying to shove enough new information into people’s brains that it wasn’t worth it.

    And I agree, the next time someone says ontology, you should punch them in the face.

  6. #6 KP
    October 3, 2011

    The desire to share what we learn is an important part of anyone’s journey, especially in the worlds of passionate professionals. That’s why information/blogs on any subject are becoming so readily available to the public. You’d think that the importance of simple, effective communication would be common sense when the time comes to put your ideas out there, but I can see how this is difficult in discussing specialized areas.

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