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29/08/2014

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Fact-free science communication

Jon Copley retreats from tinsel town

Randy Olson (2009) Don't be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style Island Press, 207pp   ISBN: 9781597265638

Communicating your research to the wider public is not, as the cliché goes, rocket science.  You can learn its basic principles in half a day, although they can then be refined over a lifetime of practice.  Those basic principles are all there in this book  -albeit spread over 207 pages.

It’s an easy and entertaining read, however.  Olson's thesis is that, when conveying the bigger picture to non-specialist audiences, scientists need to let go of their usual pedantry.  He doodles in the margins of that thesis with anecdotes from his own experience, first as a marine biologist and then as a film-maker - although the latter seems to include copious tinsel-town name-dropping.

Mindswaps

Pedants aren't usually the most popular members of social circles.  But in our day-to-day work, scientists need to be pedants, because accuracy and detail matter.  So we have to swap between two mindsets: one for when we are communicating with our colleagues, and another for communicating with non-specialists.  If there is a problem, it is because scientists have not been routinely trained in the latter.  But that situation is gradually changing, and with that change the problem should diminish.  When graduate students receive the basic tools to engage wider audiences, I'm delighted to see them excel at it.

Where the book excelled for me, however, was in the refutation of what armchair pundits of science communication call the ‘deficit model’ - the idea that public mistrust of a scientific idea can be simply cured by giving people more information about it.  But most people moved on from that a long time ago, apart from perhaps Richard Dawkins.  Don't get me wrong here: Dawkins is one of my science-writer and biologist heroes, but he does seem to have an unshakeable faith that creationists will eventually yield to an increasing intensity of beautifully-presented rational argument.

In praise of facts

I wriggled with discomfort, however, over Olson’s exhortations that we should let go of our attachment to facts. This is what is behind the imperative of the book's title.  It's true that facts alone won't win your audience over, if you don't have any narrative structure or hook, for example.  But when you do have those, you need to put the facts in, albeit very carefully.

Let's turn it around.  From a screen-writing perspective, at what point does not bothering about factual accuracy destroy the suspension of disbelief among an audience?  I've recently been advising a TV company producing a new drama series that features deep-sea science.  They approached my institute for help because they were keen to ‘get the science right’.  Why?  Because compelling drama alone isn't enough, if events in the plot are scoffed at by anyone who has ever scuba dived, for example.

Back to basics

The first rule of communication is ‘know your audience’, and an audience will contain some degree of pedantry.  As Tim Radford, former Science Editor of The Guardian, sagely advised: never overestimate your audience's knowledge, or underestimate their intelligence.  So you don't have to dumb down, and you don't have to sex up.  You simply have to be very selective in deciding what people need to know, so that you can achieve your goal: getting across what you are doing and why it matters.

To engage, you also need to link to what your audience cares about, and use some good story-telling - and we can pick up some tips from Hollywood in that regard.

There, that summed up most of the basics in the last 114 words, complete with a name-drop.  If you'd like another 207 pages expanding on that, read this book and enjoy it.  There are gems here, among the movie-world glitter.

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Dr Jon Copley
Dr Jon Copley is a Lecturer in Marine Ecology at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. He also provides training in science communication
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