Thursday, October 6, 2011

That Science Communication Thing


We scientists mostly suck at communicating with the public. Many of us don't even try to do any real outreach to the non-science public. We communicate our results by publishing papers or giving conference talks squarely aimed at other scientists.

This is not great. People — like Christie Wilcox here — have been calling for scientists to open up and share directly with the public. It's a nice idea. It is important that science gets reported, and it's important that people from all walks of life participate in public discourse.

Of course it's not quite that easy. Steven Hamblin brings up some important good reasons why scientists aren't communicating directly with the public, and why doing so would not have such large effect. He focuses on the skills needed for good communication. Doing it well is hard, and many, even most scientists don't have those skills.

I'd like to offer another reason: good communication takes a lot of time. This is time we in general do not have. There is no time set aside for science communication; few or no writing classes offered for faculty specifically for communicating science to the general public; no support or funds for dealing with any ethical and other issues that may arise. The scientists that do communicate directly do so on their own free time, as a hobby and elect to do it instead of watching TV, talking with their family, playing an instrument, catching up on sleep or whatever you do for fun. It is laudable that people like Scicurious does this, of course, but it is strictly voluntary.
And it takes real time to do it well. I only post about 2-3 times a week on my blog here, mostly not science-related, and the rate drops whenever I get busy with work. A simple off-the-top-of-my-head opinion post like this one takes me about an hour to put together (there goes my lunch). An actual sciency post like the recent one on the history of violence can take several hours, what with finding and reading sources, writing, making illustrations and so on.

Some people claim an effective blog needs to post one big piece and a couple of fillers every day. That's too much for a science blog, but even at my current rate of three posts a week I'd need an extra hour every working day. That hour comes from my work time or it will have to come from my Japanese language studies, from reading, from photography, from spending time with Ritsuko. In short, from enjoying my time away from work.

If you want scientists in general to spend time on communication then you have to pay for it — pay by adding it into the job description; pay by setting aside time for doing so; pay by offering support and guidelines; and pay by offering training for those who aren't naturally good at or interested in social media or non-specialist writing. Understand that it would be quite doable; you could make part of your yearly teaching load for instance. It is teaching of a sort, after all, not just in a lecture format and not to a small, captive audience. It would mean somewhat less other teaching, or less research. That is unavoidable.

But do we really want to force all scientists to communicate directly? We don't require every public servant to communicate with the public in other fields, do we? It's rare for actual policemen, physicians, soldiers or firemen to communicate directly with the public, for instance. National administrators and bureaucrats don't tweet about new regulations all by themselves. They go through their public relations department and a dedicated press spokesperson.

Communication is hard — hard enough that public communication, journalism and outreach is an acknowledged group of professions. Why do we have this idea that every single scientist needs to do this by themselves? And, may I add, without the training, interest or time you'd need to make a decent job of it. Having stressed PI's dutifully dump their unedited abstracts onto Google+ or Facebook, or tweet the paywalled link to their latest paper, then ignore any questions and feedback would hurt science communication, not help it.


Anonymous said...

I personally think scientists should be cautious about communicating everything directly to the general public. It would be far too easy for people to publish their results prematurely, before they've been confirmed by peers, and thus possibly cause more confusion.

I was a physics student at neighboring BYU back in the 80's, at the time the University of Utah yelled to the world they had figured out cold fusion. What a fiasco! If they had followed the normal procedures and published their results in a scientific journal or a conference, their peers could have checked their research and demonstrated the errors before they made themselves look foolish on the covers of magazines.

The current process is there for a reason.

Janne Morén said...

Anon, you're right about that. But I think the discussion is more about outreach: about explaining your already published results, and about interacting with the public directly through social media.

I do believe that is important. I also do believe that for best impact it is something only a subset of scientists should do.