Communicating Ciencia

Posted on April 6, 2013

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the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world

I am not what may be considered a “traditional” science communicator—even though that term nowadays is changing with the times and technology.

I am not a science journalist. I am not a scientist that communicates his/her findings through traditional or social media with a focus of making it understandable to the general public. I am not a journalist that covers science. Lastly, I do not work in an organization or agency with the special focus on communicating science to the public.

Nonetheless, I do take a deep interest in the communication and storytelling of science. For one, part of my work is in science education, working with teaching credential students on how to “teach science” in public schools. Secondly, part of my other work involves training undergraduate students on teaching in the outdoors and building “nature literacy” to work with elementary school students. Lastly, I did focus my graduate work on the communication and education aspects of natural resources and the environment. Add to that my current work with Latino public radio, with a keen interest in how messaging works with underserved communities.

So yes, I may not be a science communicator in the same vein as the science communicating superstars I follow on Twitter and various blogs. But I like to communicate science—or at the very least understanding the ways it is presented to the general public, and especially to underserved audiences such as various Latino demographics.

With that in mind, I present here some general ideas of how I “bullet point” ONE approach to communicating science. This is not meant to be definitive and I do not preach as an authority, but I do speak with some experience and observations.

I present it here with the frame of some meme humor—because that makes it more enjoyable.

I don’t always communicate science, but when I do…

-I use stories

Stories have key components that engage our interests. There are really good stories out there that are “empty”, they do not teach you anything. Think of the power of having an incredible story that teaches you something—teaches you science! You are the story teller.

-I lead with the conclusion

You have a story to tell, but your expository hook may need to be your ending. Sadly, with the ever-increasing information flood brought on by modern technology, our attention devotes a few seconds to see “what’s the story about” before continuing to read. Having said that, it may not be that you need to be beholden to the Inverted Pyramid—you can experiment and challenge it depending on your intent. But if your intent is to quickly capture the attention of the reader, how are you telling the reader what your story is about as quickly as possible? What is your purpose? In education we use “learning goals and objectives” which may serve a role in science communication: “After reading this story, the reader will be able to identify/visualize/recall the ecosystem value of sea otters.”

-I amplify before I simplify

“Dumbing it down” hurts you and the reader. It is about education, not just information dissemination. Create bridges between the “difficult” science concepts and terms to “common” examples the reader understands—don’t just eliminate the “hard words” because “they’re hard”. Amplify before you simplify by seeing how you can add for clarification before subtracting for simplification. This also connects to how you use context to make those connections.

-I create visual engagement

Yes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” but obviously it works better when the visual complements your text. Much like a good PowerPoint, you have (or should have) a reason for the pictures. The text and photos are dancing together to tell your story.

-I translate and interpret jargon and technical measurements

This goes along with amplifying. It is often recommended you lose the jargon and technical terms…but where possible, think more about how you are translating, interpreting, and describing, as well as what tools you are using to help you do that. It could be something as easy as using an appositive.

-I check for arrogance of expertise

You are expert, you know your stuff. Your audience may not. But that means you need to check your assumptions in terms of how “easy” it is or should be for others to understand your field of expertise. When in doubt, try to do something you have knowledge or expertise in. Tune in to that frustration and see if you may be doing the same with your work for others. This is about keeping your audience and reader in mind—and not confusing their ignorance on a subject for a lack of intelligence or capacity to understand. Do not assume your expertise means your subject matter is intuitively easy for others to understand.

-I communicate emotion along with the facts: curiosity, passion, excitement, exploration, mystery

This is science, not just any type of fiction right? But part of the stereotype you are trying to break is that science is dull, boring, and just “dry facts”. There’s the knowledge, the information, but also the process of science that intuitively carries a lot of emotion. Most scientists “do science” because they love it, it’s exciting, and there is a sense of exploration and “figuring stuff out”.  Simply put, a sense that Science is F-ing awesome. Our brains are preset to “figure stuff out” and note what’s “cool” (intuitively fascinating). How are we sharing that with the stories we are telling in science? Does your reader feel that excitement?

-I take a voyage with the reader from a known place to a new landscape

This is related to other points about building bridges and connecting to a sense of exploration. But more importantly, it is about using or finding a narrative structure that takes the reader from something with which they are familiar to somewhere new for them.  The reader can say “wow, that was interesting, I didn’t know that”, but you have helped the reader make new connections in their cognitive map, connect new information to a frame of what they know. You have fired up some neurons with curiosity.

-I use humor where I can

Many good science memes out there work because they wrap a lot of this together…and make you laugh. Good science memes deliver a science concept in a pithy way coupled with a visual that connects with the reader—and you remember it more because it’s funny. There is a negative affective filter (how we feel about the subject) based on a bias and stereotype (“science is boring and for geeks”) we are trying to break—and humor helps in breaking through that filter.

-I think if there may be a cultural filter

I am not sure how many people consider this explicitly. But in looking at bilingual and bicultural readers and communicators, I wonder how they connect with science with a cultural frame in mind, and how they use a native language. Yes, science is science regardless of the language. But in communicating to a broader audience, just as we go through an affective and knowledge filter, there may be a cultural filter that can help or hinder the communication effort.

To further add, yes, you are of course focusing on the science, not just being “gimmicky” for the sake of being gimmicky. Your science is sound, your facts are solid, and it is presented professionally. But based on the work I have done with teachers studying to teach science (and the students they are trying to reach), I can tell you that no matter how solid the science is, if it is badly communicated so that it confirms the negative stereotypes of science, you may as well be communicating math…(kidding of course…)

To close this, my comments are not exhaustive and comprehensive— there are other things that other people would add or change (see list below). I wanted to focus on key thing I have noticed, even some that offer the “more bang for the buck”, the easily overlooked, or the obvious points that most approaches take. At the very least they are things I keep in mind.

This is just one little HOW tidbit for curious science communicators. There are also considerations of WHAT you should communicate (so much science out there!) and WHERE you can communicate it (especially in social media). If you are in the stages of WHY you should communicate science—that’s another course.

-José G. González

@JoseBilingue

stay-thirsty

Thirsty for some cool resources? This is but a start:

And I’ll gladly put in a plug and reference for two spectacular Twitter buds: Viet Le and Ben Landis.

 

 

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