The art of science communication

If only science was a game only between you and the nature! Alas, it is not simple, our environment is far too complicated to be understood by an individual. Even if the lonely genius Einstein myth persists, the reality is that science, whatever its domain of application, is an endeavor at the scale of humanity. A problem can be address only through cooperation, discussions, disputes. Consequently, the talent of the scientist resides as well in its communicating capabilities as in theoretical and experimental proficiency.

I came to dig a bit more about this topic while reading this article highlighting the need for a simplification of scientific communication. I agree that there is a problem of communication in science, but it may not be due to only the elitist style. If we want to better understand the issue, we have to consider the different types and levels of communication that the scientist has to deal with. The frontier between the different types is rather blurry and depends on the targeted audience and the purpose of the communication. But we can distinguish the following levels.

The first level of communication is the routine communication with his teammates, people working on the same topic and who aim at solving the same scientific problems. It is a highly specialized discussion where use of jargon is recommended to keep a high level of accuracy and avoid misunderstandings. The communication is in this case a mixture of equation writing, drawing, exchange of code and rational discussion. This is a difficult exercise because it is absolutely necessary to be sure that the participants to the discussion will share at the end the same understanding of the problem and of the possible solutions. From experience, a lot of time is lost because of misunderstandings. It is also difficult because the scientist often think that discussion with colleagues is a loss of time at the expense of pure individual thinking.

The second level of communication is the publication: it can be a report, an article, a digital notebook. The purpose here is to communicate in detail the method, the results, the analysis and the conclusions of the work so that your peers can try to reproduce, to falsify, to confirm or to improve your work. Therefore, it has to be clear, accurate and complete. This level is typically what is expected from a scientist. There is a lot of discussion ongoing on the problems of reproducibility, of peer reviewing and of journals impact factors but this is a little bit different story.

The third level of communication is the oral presentation. The purpose here is to attract the attention of the scientific community on your work, either to get collaboration, help, contradiction, funding.  An oral presentation is, by definition, limited in time and thus can focus only on a limited number of points. Therefore it cannot address technicalities. The communication has to highlight some key ideas, it has to activate some triggers in the audience to motivate them to look at your work in more detail (through communication of the second and first level). Honestly, given what I see during conferences this is an exercise which is, most of the time, poorly done. Slides overloaded with plots and texts, no coherent structure, no context explained, no vision. I suspect that most scientists fear that they cannot use storytelling and simple slides without being criticized for lack of rigor. There is a balance to find. A presentation, even a scientific one, has to be compelling.

The last level of communication is the communication with the public. Void. Blank. This is the ultimate difficult exercise. The hell on earth. And it has become worse in the last years. Before, the main contact with the public was through the media and the journalists and only some chosen distinguished scientists were allowed to talk to the journalists. So the difficult exercise of explaining science to a broad audience was to the charge of the journalist. Difficult because you have to find the compromise between the accuracy of the facts and the interest of the public. We touch here the heart of the problem: the scientific method (but not the results!) is fundamentally not attracting. By definition, it is rational and not emotional. Most people expect emotion. There can only be a conflict when we want to communicate about science. Anyway, with the development of Internet and o the social networks, the separation between the public and the scientists has faded out. We are now in position to talk face to face with the audience. And the audience expects a communication with the scientists, it expects him to play a social role, even political one when it tackles the topic of climate evolution or bio-technologies. This is a role for which the scientist is almost not prepared. The difficulty is even greater now that the society faces a problem with the facts. The exact reason for this phenomenon is unclear: the explosion of data, the increased complexity and hyper specialization of science, the degraded education. Whatever it is, people tend to pay less and less attention to facts, data and rational discourse (if you want some proof, listen to some well known politicians; a more in-depth discussion is to be found in Rhys Taylor’s blog). So the scientist is expected to speak out but the type of communication for which he is trained will not be heard. It can only end in a wrong way: either he shows viewgraphs on TV or he will moan “trust me!” (which is the worst thing to say in science). Honestly, I still have no answer to bring as for the behavior to adopt in this case. This is still an experimental ground. But the scientist must enter this ground and communicate with the audience and find strategies to make his voice loud and clear so that the public gets interested in science again.

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