The Art of Communicating Science
A conversation with Karl Bates,director of research communications at Duke
Posted Jun 03, 2013
JON: Karl, I distinctly remember meeting you. You came to my office three years ago to write a story on the math male-female ratios in the far right tail of cognitive abilities which had just been discussed by John Tierney in The New York Times. Back then, I had no idea science writers like you in university news offices existed!
KARL: Yes Jon, I remember that well. We worked together on a press release about your findings, got the story all shined up and out the door, and then when reporters started calling, you suddenly decided you didn't want to do any interviews! This is the kind of behavior that drives PR guys toward drink.
JON: Yeah, sorry about that Karl. I appreciate that you were willing to teach me. At the time I had very little experience discussing the findings and was really scared of losing control of how others might interpret my research. I’ve now been blogging, writing, and doing interviews for many magazines and news sites for over two years, so I’ve learned and grown a lot since then. I’m an academic that has branched out into the journalistic world, and found that these groups have very different incentive structures. Academics focus on control, detail, nuance, and publishing articles that they hope their colleagues will cite. Journalists focus on broad impact and telling an interesting story that will connect with the public and drive traffic to their site. The people who inhabit these worlds are so different in many ways! But I’ve found they are both extremely smart.
KARL: And I am a journalist who lives in the scientific world. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, about ten of which I specialized in science, medicine and environmental stories. Now I do pretty much the same thing for a university news office at Duke. My job is helping scientists explain themselves to the public and helping journalists get what they need from scientists. University public information officers (PIO) like me are sort of like real estate agents; we try to ensure that each party can complete the transaction and have their needs met without abusing the other. I've worked with both groups long enough to know where most of the problems will arise, but there are always surprises.
JON: What are the personality differences between journalists and scientists and how might those differences get in the way of effective communication and understanding?
KARL: Let's start with what scientists and journalists have in common and hope that some mutual recognition – if not respect – builds from there. First and foremost, the scientist and the journalist are both intensely curious “Seekers of Truth,” but they go about it in wildly different ways. I was looking at the Myers-Briggs test to see if I could explain their differences that way, but I think both groups would generally end up on the same side of the scale – introverted, intuitive, thinking and for the most part, judging, though the journalists may have a higher tolerance for the spontaneity and improvisation of a "perceiving" person on the scale. The saddest thing is, given how similar they really are, both groups are victims of terribly negative Hollywood stereotypes about their behavior that probably keep them from getting to know each other better.
JON: I think that just as C.P. Snow discussed the two cultures of scientists and humanists, I would argue that there are also the two cultures of scientists and journalists. You’re right that scientists and journalists have similarities in personality, but perhaps journalists are higher on openness to experience? And the differences are important to understand so that the the gaps can be bridged, right?
KARL: Right. So, in offensively broad terms, I'd say the scientist is fairly obsessive about precision, and wants to at least identify – if not absolutely control – all variables. They strive to be comprehensive and worry about what they've left out. I think some of them live in mortal fear of being seen as superficial, especially among their colleagues, so more information is almost always a better thing. Their vocabulary is off-putting to the uninitiated, but it can be super-precise, just the way they like it. And after many years, I started to recognize this huge difference in cognitive style between scientists and the rest of us: they are really comfortable spreading out and labeling all of the pieces of the puzzle before they get down to figuring out what it might represent. Most folks like to study the box to know what the picture is first!
When it comes time to tell their story, scientists have been acculturated to be as dispassionate and detached as they can and to communicate in a highly stylized way that includes a broad sweep with lots of qualification and expressions of uncertainty, the biggest words they can muster, acronyms, cryptic abbreviations, mathematical notations, more and more detail, and the good stuff at the very end, the “tah-dah” moment. I have to tell you, to a journalist, and really to most of the public, this all seems completely backward and maybe deliberately obtuse.
Journalists love having that conclusion right up front; then they'll drill down into the details if it intrigues them. They are filter-feeders: discarding a lot of detail is the name of the game to get to the good parts. To them, superficial is good, because it emphasizes what's really important. Journalists are trained to tell their stories in the broadest, simplest language so that it reaches the widest possible audience. (Conversely, the more specific your terminology, the smaller your audience becomes.) Their obsessive behavior is about crafting the fewest number of words to say something in the simplest, truest, least equivocal way. Scholarly equivocation and qualification seems like a dodge to journalists – they just want to know the bottom line.
So you can see how scientists end up viewing the journalistic cut to the chase as terribly simplistic and incomplete. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a scientist call a story "inaccurate," only to work through the complaint with them to find out that what they really mean is "it didn't have enough detail." Sorry, that's not wrong; it's just more simple. And you know what? Simplifying your story to get it in front of a bigger audience is good for your career. There's data to prove it.
JON: Nobel laureate Günter Blobel told The New York Times: “I’m always telling my students that if they can’t explain what they are doing to their grandmothers then they probably don’t understand it themselves.” I think this is spot on. Frankly, I think a lot of the complicated language academics use in their journal articles is really unnecessary and often obfuscates. Strangely enough, this show of complexity is likely used to impress academic colleagues. Clear writing and presentation is the result of clear thinking which has distilled the core of an idea. So, it sounds like the scientist seeks comfort in complexity, and the journalist strives for simplicity. Given your experience, how do you think we can connect them?
KARL: Carefully! In bridging this gap, I'm biased toward the journalist's perspective because they represent the vast, non-scientist, general public. I think it's super-important for scientists to recognize that they are vastly outnumbered by non-scientists, who aren't stupid, they just don't know your language. It would be arrogant to demand that the majority learn your language and culture when you're so badly outnumbered.
JON: And yet, that is often what scientists do. They think journalists and the public should learn their language, not the other way around. It would be like Chinese people who move to America, expect Americans to speak Chinese, and then are shocked when they don’t!
KARL: So let's try to help the scientist understand what they need to do to communicate with journalists and by extension, the public they serve. The non-scientist relates powerfully to narrative storytelling – characters, plot, rising action – you know, the whole high school literature lesson. It's a good practice to work on developing some of those ideas about your own work. You also need some specific examples, because anecdotal evidence feels more true to non-scientists. (Politicians know this rule very well, right?) As a scientist, you're trained not to use stories and anecdotes with peers yet that's EXACTLY what connects with the public. Put a bit of thought into this: The more you can do to translate your work and tell your story in simpler terms, the safer you'll be. If you leave it to non-experts to interpret your meaning, you probably won't be happy with the results. And finally, add some passion and enthusiasm. Everyone responds to that, so don't be afraid to show how excited you are about your work.
JON: Yeah, scientists know that “the plural of anecdote is not data” and they become concerned when journalists depend on stories because they see how compelling anecdotes can be to the public, even if that anecdote is misleading. I think many scientists feel that stories can be a little too compelling such that the public doesn’t understand science depends upon many factors such as study design and a large sample size. For example, recall Steven Pinker’s critique of Malcolm Gladwell and Christopher Chabris’s critique of Jonah Lehrer.
So if you could boil down five tips for scientists who want to communicate their work, what would those be?
KARL: Here’s my list of five science communication tips for scientists:
1. "The public" are not your colleagues – it’s the other 6.95 billion people on the planet. They don’t speak your language, but that doesn't mean they're stupid.
2. You owe it to the public to explain what you are up to. For the most part, they're paying for it, and you don't ever want them to stop thinking research is a good investment. Old school excuses about being too busy or being misunderstood won't cut it. This is an excellent use of your time.
3. There have never been better tools for you to connect directly with the public. Think about making a YouTube video out of your research footage or a felt-tip pen cartoon explaining your work. Use social media to share what you're doing.
4. If you're at an institution that does funded research, you probably have a news office where there are people dedicated to helping you communicate with the press and the public. Get to know them; ask for their help.
5. Tell us a story, use examples, share your passion, KEEP IT SIMPLE. You were a ninth-grader once; get that kid to tell your story.
JON: These are great Karl. I’d like to add a handful of things that I think scientists can learn from journalists:
1. Remember that E. O. Wilson said: “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet, works like a clerk, and writes like a journalist.”
2. Big words and fancy terms don’t matter as much as you’d like to think.
3. If you can’t communicate your science clearly you may not actually understand what you’re doing and whether it’s important. Just attempting to communicate your science can clarify your thinking. Try it!
4. What you write may have an impact in the academic world. But what journalists write may have an impact in the entire world.
Of course, communication goes both ways. So what do you think journalists should know about scientists?
KARL: Here’s my list of five things journalists need to know about scientists:
1. If they haven't talked to reporters before, scientists can be afraid to surrender control and be worried you will misrepresent them.
2. A scientist's intense vocabulary can seem like a smoke screen, but it's very precise. They can describe a concept someone devoted their entire career to in a single word. Scientists are also seeking precision when they describe what they don't know, which can come off sounding like equivocation.
3. Most scientists could use your help explaining what they do. They live in a rarefied community where everyone speaks their special language. Work with them to find appropriate metaphors and vocabulary for your audience.
4. Science is not like you see on TV or in the movies. It takes way longer, the results are often not clear, and any finding that is announced has to face a gauntlet of skeptics trying to knock it down for years before it will become truly accepted. Science takes time, and scientists never really feel they know something for certain.
5. Scientists are paid to be curious. Many of them have an almost childlike joy about what they're doing. Tap into it by showing you're curious too and tell them something about your work. You'll find a lot of them enjoy going out for a beer – try it.
JON: Excellent. Point 1 is exactly where I was when we first met. Here are a couple additional things I think journalists can learn from scientists:
1. Storytelling can often obscure an understanding of science. So make sure the story you tell is backed up by solid empiricism.
2. Oversimplification of findings can be dangerous. You have a responsibility to broadly ensure the scientific details are correct because what you write will be what the public remembers. Don't be afraid to double back and check your facts or make sure your metaphors are appropriate. Remember that you are summarizing the work of a scientist in a very short span of time which may have taken the scientist years to complete.
Karl, is there anything else you’d like to add?
KARL: For the scientists: Communicating your science is good for your career, your field and society as a whole. Start by using your institution's communications resources to get some guidance and advice, and then try getting out there. We'll all benefit from it. For the journalists: Some scientists just can't or won't be understood. You can ignore them and move on – unless you think they're hiding something.
Karl Leif Bates is a science journalist and director of research communications at Duke University.
© 2013 by Jonathan Wai