Field of Science

Public relations and science

The latest issue of Seed has an excellent quote form Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University:

I remember, I was on a visiting committee at MIT, and these students tend to think they're going to be successful because they're good at what they're doing. But in fact, a large barometer of their success will be how well they can communicate what they're doing. Not just to the outside public, which most scientists don't necessarily have to do -- though I think that's important, too -- but within the field, or to your company. It isn't just what you do, it's often how you present it. And, traditionally, we've spent very little time educating our students on how to communicate.
I absolutely agree. This could be dismissed as "spinning," something which scientists shouldn't do. But the truth is thousands of scientific papers are published every month. Nobody has time to read them all, and most of the papers one does read can't be read carefully. If the writer doesn't do a good job of explaining what the results mean and why they are important, they are likely to be missed. If you are giving a talk about your research, hopefully the audience can figure out for themselves why your information is relevant to their work, but you're doing everybody a favor if you help them. Many very good researchers are terrible at communicating their ideas and their findings.

Many people are aware that Mendel's groundbreaking studies of heredity were buried and what he learned had to be re-discovered independently. According to Frank Sulloway in Born to Rebel, this was partly due to Mendel's inability to communicate the importance of his findings.

Just in case anybody thinks Krauss is advocating spin:

So strategies of persuasion, I think, are vitally important within the field. But -- and I should be very clear about this -- while I understand science as a sociological phenomena, I do believe in objective reality and I do believe that, ultimately, important science wins out in spite of the social constructs adn the social or peer pressures to do certain things...That's what makes science special.

1 comment:

R N B said...

All very true ... and well communicated :)

I also fully accept that scientific discovery gets us closer to an objective truth of reality, but it is political factors that often prevent the "use" of that discovery. So of course this requires better marketing of science.

So far so obvious. But one slightly radical request, don't "dumb down" the communication, I'd prefer scientists to overload us with data and scoff at our incomprehension rather than have them oversimplify to give an easily misused message.