Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Scientists are from Mars, the Rest of Us are Marketers

The National Academy of the Sciences is holding a conference this week called "The Science of Science Communications" and it opened up the web cast to whomever wanted to watch. I've seen some of it and have found myself wanting to scream at the screen. 

The scientists have discovered story telling and narrative as a way of connecting the general population to the wonders of science. They are still debating how to do it of course. They told us that if you make a connection with people - use analogies - tell the story of how the research was developed and where it led - humanize the researcher - people will pay attention and perhaps even care. 

The conference should really have been called "A Celebration of Breaking Bad." Many presenters referenced the AMC show which over six seasons has been a brilliant character study of how a dying high school chemistry teacher turned into a meth manufacturer because he desperately needed the money, and chemistry helped him do it. 

News flash - this is not a show about the wonders of chemistry - it's about how someone who is essentially a good person transforms into a monster who lacks any form of morality except moderately where his family is concerned. There are formulas in the introduction to the show - that's about as deep as it gets into chemistry.

Do we really want to celebrate that?

The absolute irony was the presentations used to convey the scientists insights into science communications were scientific. They had charts with lots of labeled dots - were presented in language that was so thick it was hard to figure out. In other words, here are the purveyors of science communication telling scientists how to communicate, and they are not following their own advice. 

A breakthrough on one panel was when a researcher who is figuring out how to communicate with teens explained that you have understand the target audience before you determine the best ways to talk to its members. I'll let that one stand on its own.

Another questioner pointed out that all of the scientific journal articles start out with the end result of the research - the great finding - and then work backwords to explain how they got there. But from Point A to Point B is oversimplified and not really an accurate description of how science works. 
"Science is messy," she said, meaning that the whole point of basic research is that it may not lead where it was expected too. Why don't we just start there?

Or learn from the graduate students. In November of 2012 NSF had a video contest for its Graduate Research Fellows and the students' depictions of their work was wonderful. Check out the winners at:

I guess this is a rant. But if the senior science communicators don't know how to make it matter to the rest of us then who does? Maybe it's just a job for marketing.

1 comment:

  1. I watched much of the video stream also. I finally understood some of the reasons why scientists have such a hard time communicating to the "public". I thought some of the data presented, such as how groups of people formulate and share opinions about science topics, was interesting. But that falls in the realm of social and behavioral sciences, and yes, marketing, which most scientists seem to scoff. Just the fact that the first session was titled "Lay Narratives and Epistemologies" was a tease of the highbrow, egghead, elitist, and exclusive colloquium that was sure to follow. Colloquium: an academic , Latin word. And remember PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. Plato once said " When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself". Apply that to scientists and you could just as easily say " When a scientist is talking, s/he is talking to one's self ... and any other scientists in the room."