Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Communicating Science Effectively: The “Flame Challenge” is an example to follow!

I commend participants in Alan Alda’s recent competition to explain what a flame is to an 11 year-old (with the small caveat that it should apply to adults just as much as children!). At the World Science Festival held in New York City last weekend they announced the winner of the competition out of over 800 submissions from around the world. The winning video, created by graduate student Ben Ames of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, does an excellent job explaining complicated theories from chemistry and physics to a lay audience. Mr. Ames clearly worked very, very hard on this video, but I hope you’ll agree, that this level of effort is worth it.


As a member of the Yale Student Science Diplomats, I strongly believe that scientists have an obligation to broadly disseminate their work, and explain it carefully and clearly to others. There’s a common phrase we use for this: “Communicating Science to Non-Scientists.” But I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with this phrase. It unintentionally implies some sort of fundamental difference between the intellectual capabilities of scientists and non-scientists. 

The reason a lay person might not understand a scientific article is usually the same reason a scientist might not understand a their cell-phone contract –- they don’t “speak the language” or know the relevant laws. While jargon is helpful when experts in a field communicate amongst themselves, scientists often overuse complicated terms, especially with lay audiences. We also usually forget to provide enough background information before getting to the main point. Without the right context, even things that are explained precisely and slowly are incomprehensible. It is not a matter of intelligence, but explanation. 

Making scientific concepts more accessible helps with two additional roadblocks to communicating science to people: boredom and apathy. If you don’t get lost in jargon, you have a better chance of recognizing why something is interesting and important (and science is usually both!). If you think something is cool and relevant to me, you’ll be more likely to absorb--and even use--the information you’re given. So, scientists, teachers, parents, and journalists will be most effective if they speak about science in an engaging and relatable way. 

Some people might reasonably argue that you just can’t make everything clear and exciting–-and that attempts to do so could distract from, or even distort, the truth. Proponents of this argument are the ones who draw a clear line between the abilities of scientists on non-scientists. The scientist who perpetuates this myth might say, “Why should I put a lot of effort into explaining something when it’s just too hard for them to understand?” Meanwhile, the average adult might react, and further perpetuate the myth, by saying “I’m not a science person, so I shouldn’t bother trying to understand this.” I concede that there are cases where it is impractical to thoroughly explain a scientific result or theory, but I think we need to embrace the hard job of balancing clarity, potency, and accuracy. In fact, it is possible to strike this balance even with something as complicated as fire. 

Becky van den Honert
Psychology PhD Student