Sunday, February 19, 2006

Randy Olson: How to Communicate Science

So Randy Olson, director of Flock of Dodos (warning: loud, potentially annoying), was recently given a guest post by Carl Zimmer so he could present some suggestions on how to present science to the nonscientific public more effectively.

Some have responded well. Several, shall we say, responded a tad more negatively. A common complaint seems to be that they're interpreting Olson's suggestions as being tips on how to dumb down science for laypeople, which they take great humbrage in.

Some of my own thoughts:
--I don't think he's saying we should dumb down science.
--That doesn't mean you don't--pretty much as a rule--HAVE TO dumb down science for laypeople.

I understand. In science--and among intellectual pursuits in general--there's a bit of a stigma against the idea of dumbing things down. But you know what? I'm of the opinion that even in scientific journals, things are too rarely presented in a fashion that's accessible to scientists outside of small subsets of a discipline. I can follow most articles on drug addiction at this point--my current area of expertise--but not necessarilly all, and outside of that I'm often hosed. I admit I'm an undergrad, but I'm a senior who's been studying this for a year and (I hope) a pretty smart guy. I freely admit I'll be able to understand more of this once I'm working on my doctoral, but come on: journal articles should NOT only be accessible to PhD.s working in the field. This is my humble opinion.

But more importantly, when we're presenting information to laypeople, we're not presenting it to fellow scientists. And this is key: he's talking about how to present scientific knowledge to people who aren't even interested in science. To win the battles he's talking about, you have to be able to communicate effectively with people who are already biased against scientists, or at the very least with an English major (no offense to English majors; I was one once, I swear!).

I don't think he's telling us how to present info to college classes; and he's not telling us what each and every scientist should do. He's pointing out what tools we should use to communicate science through the media to the public. And although I don't agree with him 100%, I do think he's generally pointing in the right direction. Look at suggestions like "Quality Control" and "Modernization": these aren't suggestions as to how Professors should be presenting things (although a few I've had could learn from that); these are pointing out that to persuade people about science, we need to present information in a format people will be willing to experience, and present it to them in a style that people will WANT to experience. He's right: some cutting-edge school should have a "Science Electronic Media" program. How to present real science in an engaging format on the web, that will make home browsers that don't have extant interest in science want to come by. How to make television programs that will make non-geeks want to watch them all the time, and learn from them.

Dr. Free-Ride disparagingly presents this quote:

6) Understanding - intellectuals are handicapped as mass communicators. I had this line in my film, but took it out because it sounded too insulting. But its true. Mass audiences do not follow people who think, they follow people who act. Intellectuals are trained to think, not act. Its one of their charming traits, but it's also a handicap. Try taking an acting class and you'll get to know about this intimately. And it's not that you necessarily need to do something about this right now, it's just that you need to start developing some awareness of it.

Okay, first off. When he says, "they follow people who act," he doesn't mean we need Heath Ledger to be presenting science to the public. And maintaining otherwise is either actively deceptive or simply utterly missing the point. He's using act in the sense of "do," and anyone who's taken an acting class knows this: you can't think on stage. You can't just sit still and talk at your audience. Even on broadway, the audience will get bored in a minute if that's all that's going on. Audiences are there to WATCH things. And that's a key point he's getting at: sciencists are scientists because they find science intrinsically interesting. But when you're dealing with someone who's not a scientist, it is not an unsafe presumption that they may--perhaps--find it less interesting than you. Give them a reason to find it interesting, give them some entertainment value, and then they can grow to realize that the science itself is of intrinsic interest.

Dr. Freeride goes on to say:

It may be enough for an actor to get the audience to feel something. However, the scientist usually aims to get the audience to think. Successful scientific communication doesn't just dump a bunch of facts at the audience's feet. Rather, it leads the audience through a thought process -- what could these facts mean, what are the most consistent ways to fit them together, and how are these conclusions more reasonable than the alternatives? Just as artists, novelists, and yes, even the makers of your better films and television programs make the audience do some work, so should scientists and populizers of science. Audience participation (at least in the sense of an audience actively engaging the message rather than having it poured into their skulls) is not an unreasonable thing to ask.

And oddly enough, I think that's exactly what Orton's getting at.

How many scientists got where they are today because they thought dinosaurs were kickass when they were ten years old? A lot, I'd wager. But just because I've already made the leap from Tyrannosaurus Rex to psychomotor models of incentive salience, doesn't mean I assume that anyone I'm talking to is ready to make it in a single step.


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