Why is 'scientists are bad communicators' trope wrong

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.

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I'm so much better when someone asks me a question, even a tough one. It tells me what I need to know about what and how they need to hear. I wouldn't want to underestimate the value of that in pull media either. It helps immensely to know what people are looking for, how they shape their questions, etc. It means good answers are where people are looking.

Oh, absolutely. There is a trade-off here: push places tend to be one-to-many, while pull media tend to be potentially conversational. But knowing the audience is very important - see that Anil Dash post I linked above.

An excellent post Bora, but as to the source of the trope, I think you're overlooking a key one - confirmation bias.
As both a blogger and journalist (and in my day job), I've come across plenty of scientists who are terrible communicators or just plain uninterested. Some people are rubbish at using simple everyday language to talk about science. Others think that engagement is beneath them or not worth their time. If you see this sort of stuff day in, day out, then it may well colour your opinions.

However, I completely agree that going from âsome scientists communicate badlyâ to "scientists are bad communicators" is nonsense. There are plenty of professions who do far worse on average - just talk to any consultant or read the labels on any art gallery as an example. Science communication to a general audience is light years ahead of similar attempts in many other technical fields.

Where I slightly disagree is in the emphasis of engagement versus communication skill. You say that it's as important to engage as it is to "communicate one's expertise to passive lay audience", but I'd argue that it's not enough to say something - you need to say it understandably and in a way that captures someone's interest. That aspect of communication hasn't changed because of the Internet. There's still a need for it. You can go and interact with people all you like but if they fundamentally cannot understand what youâre saying, or find it boring, youâre not communicating, youâre monologuing.

I do, however, totally agree that engagement is important, and that on the Internet, there are far fewer excuses for not doing so. I had a highschooler who asked a decent question about insect cognition on my blog and I forwarded it to a researcher in the area to see if he might proffer an answer. His response was that he doesn't deal with blogs and that the question couldn't be answered in "superficial and general public language". That sort of attitude is prevalent but itâs becoming increasingly indefensible and hopefully rarer.

Yes, I agree, Ed. In the effort to keep this post shorter than 30 printed pages, I failed to include some of these....pre-requisites: a) know your stuff, b) know how to explain to to your grandma, and then engage if you want to be successful, don't just stand at the lectern and talk. In other words, this post is only about those scientists (and there are many of them) who are good communicators and are interested in doing it. The poor communicators, fortunately, tend to stay out of it.

While it is easy to say "scientists need to be able to explain their work in words the public understands" that is sort of a cop-out in my opinion. For example, I can explain my work in words that third graders can understand, and I can do that when I talk to third graders. But why do I have to use the same language when talking to adults? In fact, I do, because adults are almost no more likely to know a molecule is than a third grader is, and both are equally unlikely to know what atomic bonds are.

I've talked to both third graders and the adult public, and found that I have to use the same language with both of them.

So yeah, you can say that scientists need to be able to describe their work in terms that the public can understand, but should that have to be a level simple enough for a third grader?

Moreover, there is a problem in generalizing it to that level. One only needs to look at the general public's understanding of "entropy" and it's misuse by creationists fueled by that misunderstanding to see what happens when overly simplistic analogies run astray.

This is a topic appeals in part because it was the subject of my very first blog post "Scientists canât write?" admittedly about a writing for traditional print source, where is one-to-many by the nature of the medium.

I'll write about print in this comment, although I know it slightly off topic. I'll come back later and write about the discussion element later (bit busy to do both justice in the one comment right now).

"It is the mainstream media that controls all the "push" venues"

This resonates with me personally. Locally I have made tentative (and not terribly thorough) excursions at looking at options to do this in part of my time but some avenues have been cut off. I asked after access to the (local) embargo, thinking that as a scientist my credentials would stand in good stead. I was told that as I'm "not a journalist" I wouldn't allowed access to it. I understand that these often ask for examples of previous journalism, but to my thinking the underlying reason is to ensure that access to the embargo was limited to those that are less likely to abuse the embargo, not the journalism itself. I would have thought it fairly obvious that a scientist with, say, 20 years experience would be pretty cautious. I guess those with the strings see otherwise! (Others will point out, correctly, that you don't need access to the embargo, and they're right, but it makes a substantial "competitive advance" to journalists as far as I can perceive from the outside.)

Similarly in my country most international science articles in newspapers is obtained through the papers subscribing to feeds from the likes of the Washington Post, the NYT, etc. Once this is annual fee is paid, individual articles effectively cost them nothing, so there is little interest in material from a local freelancer unless you can find a local angle that is very timely and particularly strong.

I encouraged commenters to ask questions in my blog introduction, which admittedly is so long-winded that probably no-one reads it! Almost no-one tries to ask, which is a little disappointing, even if understandable. Blogs don't seem to be particularly effective that way.

The best speakers I've faced communicate mainly (or even only) the concepts, not (all) the details, and allow the audience to ask for more letting them choose the direction of the details, rather than smother the audience with detail, as a typical scientific conference speech might. In an analogous way I make a point of trying to write at the concept level when I do original pieces.

I realise all this is slightly off-topic, but I hope it contributes in a small way all the same.

I wrote a science column for our local newspaper for a couple of years, well-received by the editor and the public, I was told. The key, to me, was to write about a topic that had been in the news, and develop and explain some of the concepts so that John and Jane Public could say"Oh, NOW I see what that was about".
Although my specialty was polymers and industrial chemistry, being a nosy guy I knew a bit about a lot of things and thanks to the Internet, research, at the level of public understanding, is pretty easy.
So they opened a plant to make corn-based ethanol near us. I did two columns, one on what is ethanol and how do you make it, and another, several months later, on the various pros and cons of corn-based ethanol as a fuel additive. With Alberta's oil sands a controversila issue, I looked into some of the pros and cons.. nothing anyone couldn't do really, but John and Jane above likely wouldn't be bothered.
So to me the key is finding a topic that has some relevance to your audience, or at the very least, finding the elements in your area of specialty that J and J can identify with.
Science writing can be fun, and when someone stopped me in the grocery store and said "I really look forward to your column", you know you are onto something. The paper pulled it for cost reasons, dunno, I sure wasn't getting rich at it!

@#6: I say if a scientist needs to 'break it down' even more for a 50 year old than for a 12 year old, so be it. Ignorance is not the same thing as disinterest. The reason science education is so poor in this country (and has been in the past) is political. Considering that scientists generally get their paychecks from government (including academia), industry, and the military, you (scientists) should consider yourselves public servants (and act accordingly). If taxpayers and consumers are paying for scientific endeavors, then why aren't we considered (at least partial) owners of the information?

For medical science, it seems like physician/scientists being "bad communicators" is merely an excuse to at best offer less than a full disclosure and at worst deceive the patient/subject. I know that there are wonderful laws now that 'protect' human subjects, but after a decade or so in a research hospital, I also know that 'informed consent' is often used loosely.

I'm currently reading the very excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and I find myself stumped over the very same questions that stumped the Lacks family: Why did no one tell them anything, ever? Why, indeed?

By Catharine (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Isn't a big part of the problem generalising? Both about 'scientists' and their various audiences? (large, disparate groups, both largely defined via what they are not...). To say ALL scientists are good communicators is plain silly, as is the idea that all people will (all the time) be up for the sort of content science might provide. Similarly, I think "good", or "communication" are way too broad/ contestable terms to make especially productive arguments with.

I know this comment largely amounts to me be being an annoying old sociologist asking people to deconstruct their terms (not to mention simply agreeing with Ed) but I think its important.

So, to be more practical, with a slightly more empirical take no this issue, you might be interested in some of the work by Sarah Davies (Imperial/ Durham/ Arizona) and Kevin Burchell (LSE/ Kingston):

Science communication research is keen to point out the problem of the 'deficit' approach to publics (i.e. assuming non-scientists are ignorant and in need of lots of science). I know Sarah in particular felt that this approach, in turn, assumed a deficit approach to scientists - labelling scientists as ignorant of non-science and communication processes. She interviewed scientists and found that a lot (but not all) of them already held the sorts of sophisticated ideas of the public the sci com'n researchers had assumed they lacked (it really was one of those "have you bloody well LOOKED?" bits of social research). Similarly, Kevin's 'SCOPE' work demonstrated that biomedical scientists in the UK, at least, were keen to engage in dialogue with a range of stakeholders/ publics/ audiences.

Anyway, Petra's tweet the other day made me think of Sarah and Kevin's work.

deep Bora. You are SO right. I've got a perfect response blog post for this. As soon as I defend/apply for jobs, I'm gonna join you on that soap box.

Thanks for this post Bora. I agree completely except... one important way to engage during a lecture is to engage with the emotions of the audience. This is not something scientists do well. We are thinking of processes and conclusions. The scientist thinks, aha I have genetically engineered rice to feed millions of people and proudly presents these results to an audience in the SF bay area. Well most do not connect because not only do most of them not eat rice, none are farmers and all have more than enough to eat. They dont really care about people in parts of the world they can only dimly imagine. This is where scientists fail I think. To engage the audience we must take the next step and show how hunger and poverty elsewhere will affect the lives of the affluent and well fed. How to do this? How to make people care? I dont know. This is where scientists need help communicating.

So you, a scientist, find other scientists' discussions interesting, therefore scientists aren't poor communicators?

Sorry, Bora - that doesn't follow. After all, I suspect that you would be bored out of your mind at a discussion of systematic theology, but I, and fellow theologians, would be gripped. I bet you wouldn't consider, oh, Richard Hoaglund a snooze-meister (heaven knows I do), yet he has sold millions of bucks worth of his books and lectures.

Sorry, Bora - this isn't some sort of conspiracy. Scientists tend to have very specialized forms and methods of communications and, while capable of transmitting a good data density to others within the field, they seem to frequently struggle to communicate beyond their limits. Its a problem of all specialists from scientists to plumbers to computer geeks.

I agree in some respects to this post, but I agree also with Deep Thought above. I have just written my first science blog post and as it seems that most first posts are based around communication I have done the same. I think that scientists need to be able to communicate on a variety of levels to capture as many people as possible and drum up interest in their science. At the moment it appears that only a select few can do this well.


Personally, I find that the best communicators are those who are passionate in what they are communicating. It doesn't matter whether you're Carl Sagan talking about cosmology, or MLK talking about civil rights, if you have passion you'll go far.

This is just my layman/student perspective, for what its worth.

I think this is due to a fundamental difference between scientists and non-scientists.

All communication requires two parties. The first party must convert a mental concept into a communication medium, language (oral, sign, body, text), the data stream of that language must be transmitted, received by the other party, and then up-converted into a mental concept. Every step in this chain must work for communication to occur. It is completely wrong to attribute every failure to communicate to one party or another.

Most scientific concepts take a gigantic amount of background to understand. Without the background, they cannot be understood. If you don't have the neural structures to instantiate the mental concept, you can't understand it. I see âlearningâ, as doing neuronal remodeling so that your brain does have newly constructed neural pathways to represent the concepts that you are learning. Difficult concepts are those that require more neuronal remodeling that simple concepts.

I think that when a scientists doesn't understand something, they try to figure it out and learn what ever it takes to understand it. When a non-scientist doesn't understand something they blame the explainer for being a bad communicator.

I disagree with Pam, appealing to emotion is not the correct mechanism. I think that again, there are fundamental differences between scientists and non-scientists (this might actually be what is the âdefiningâ difference). Non-scientists try to make their conceptualization of reality correspond to and match their feelings. Scientists try to make they conceptualization of reality correspond to actual reality. This is why you can't argue with people like creationists who feel they are correct. They live in a world where their feelings are the only real thing that exists, and they see the world, only insofar as it corresponds to their feelings.

There are different grades of this, it is all along a spectrum, you have people who are nominally scientists but who sometimes let their wishful thinking get away from them, and some who can compartmentalize very well.

But most non-scientists are interested in âtruthyâ, not what is true, but what they feel is true. As defined by Stephen Cobert.


âTruthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the wordâ¦â

âIt used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?â¦â

âTruthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.â

This is the problem, non-scientists want their own truthy, they want to feel their own truth, from their own gut. Scientists can't give that to them, scientists can only give them a glimpse of reality as the scientists know it.

The teabaggers are not interested in truth, they are interested in truthy.

Coming back to one thing Bora wrote:

I tweeted that I am at my best as a science communicator when I am answering someone's question on Aardvark.

I think a difference in that situation is that half the battle has already been won.

Since the person has asked, they're already interested in hearing an explanation.

When you write a blog article, hoping to initiate a discussion, a problem can be if a decent number of those that reply are just trying to bag you, it puts off those who might like a discussion or to ask a question. They're probably there, lurking, but they are put off asking or speaking up by the louder-mouthed "anti-s", who often are working from an ideological base, like the one daedalus2u describes. (Furthermore, one of the things I find frustrating about such "anti's" is that they often won't address what you wrote at all and instead simply use your comments section as a platform to sound off on what they so desperately want to hear themselves say and "demand" that you "answer to them.")

I think a, or the, point Pam was making was that people should show their passion for their subject. It doesn't really make the content any better per se, but it does make it more acceptable than something delivered in a monotone! Scientist-to-scientist you do have to put this aside to ensure that you're not clouded by the emotion, but I think there is a place in a public presentation to start by showing some passion for the larger issue, point out to the audience that you don't want to have your judgement clouded, then go on to more evidence-based matters, replacing the initial emotion for the larger issue with a clearly conveyed caring for digging out sound evidence. In this was you can "connect," then push the point that the soundness of the substance of the argument is what really matters without losing the audienceâ? (I'm thinking of Professor Lord Robert Winston speaking to local media or in his public lectures as I write this. It's a pattern I've seen in some of this presentations or replies to presenters questions.)

I don't think short-time frame media, of any kind, will ever convey true understanding simply because of the depth of background needed, as daedalus2u was saying. Personally I try aim at getting just one or two guiding concepts across myself.

I think with cross-collaboration and interdisciplinary sharing, it is easier for science to be communicated in a more seamless manner. Despite, (now I understand this is a generalization) perhaps that a scientist lacks charisma or the ability to transfer his/her ideas and contemplations to a larger audience, hiring writers, communication and media experts etc...can create a better strategy. I find that outsourcing helps to put the greater picture in a package that can be delivered in many forms, at an understandable level , to audiences of different backgrounds. It is not as simple as saying scientists cannot communicate-that is an old school mentality in the world of multi-media communications, technology and knowledge sharing.

By Denise McTighe (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

"I think that when a scientists doesn't understand something, they try to figure it out and learn what ever it takes to understand it. When a non-scientist doesn't understand something they blame the explainer for being a bad communicator. "

This is the sort of arrogant, self-centered, smug, narrow-minded blathering drivel one expects from a terrible communicator

I think maybe you don't attend the same meetings as me. Scientists in my field (ecology) have a huge problem communicating. Yes, some are good communicators, but I am always disappointed with the majority of talks at conferences.

Blogging is nice and I do it myself, but 100 or even 1,000 interesting blogs aren't as useful and don't have the same reach as one good static website, in my opinion. How many good static science websites are there? I can say that there is not one comprehensive, reliable ecology website yet. I think the same is true for most other fields.

I don't mean to cast stones here, I only wish to express my disagreement with your post and point out an opportunity to improve.

Well. I suppose it would help certain members of the Scientific world, to appease the feelings of some, that they fail to communicate properly, if they didn't talk such utter tripe at times!

I assume, in my 'common mere mortal' way, that it was Science, who warned us, that aircraft would fall from the sky in Jan 2000 due to the utterly ridiculous 'Millenium Bug' nonsense, that all but a Sun reader would dismiss as total fantasy perpetrated by a 6 year olds dream of monsters under the bed.

Or indeed, that by the 21st Century, 1/4 of the worlds population would be HIV positive?

(I wont even bore you with the Bird or Swine Flu 'pandemic' that we all tremble about in anticipation!)

Much as we all, have total respect for the wonders of modern Science...can we not weed out the wedge who would be better off talking to a test tube full of Bats Piss...than be allowed loose on an ignorant public?

By Simon Falla (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink