Dispelling Myths About Science Communication

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BOSTON—In her Friday session, "Bad Presenter Bingo 2.0: Be a Loser of This Science Communication Game," Monica Metzler dismantled several misconceptions about communicating science to the public.

Metzler, who is the Founder and Executive Director of the Illinois Science Council (ISC) in Chicago, reminded scientists the scientific community really only represents about 1% of the U.S. population—something that is easy to forget when you are surrounded by peers. "We’re the 99%," said Metzler, who is not a scientist.

“Convey how uncertainty works and why it is a good thing and why [science] is a self-correcting system.” —Monica Metzler

Scientists also tend to think about non-scientists as monolithic, but "There is no such thing as the general public," Metzler said. So when talking to the public, know your audience, and make sure you tailor your presentation.

To find a topic that interests them, you may need to talk about something other than your own research, Metzler said, and your scientific background puts you in a good position to talk about other scientific topics. "Your training is to become an expert, but when you talk to us … we don’t need that level," Metzler said. You could, for example, do a 30-minute Internet search and give lay people a quick overview of a new topic.

But be careful: Don't assume, as many scientists do, that when you talk to the public you need to “dumb it down.”  It is true that “the key difference between a technical talk and a lay audience talk is that we don’t want to know all about it,” she said. But not providing all the details is not the same thing as talking down to your audience. To get a sense for the appropriate tone, consider how you would like your car mechanic to talk to you about your car's malfunctions—assuming you're not a car-repair expert.

When giving a scientific presentation to a lay audience, don't assume that the data speak for themselves. That may be OK within the scientific community, "but the rest of us, we don’t speak data. We don’t understand the context," she said. Just throw a lot of data out there, or some equations, and you’ve lost your audience.

If you don't like seeing eyes glaze over, you should avoid jargon. But you should also avoid words that your audience may interpret differently than your colleagues would. For example, don't use the word "theory," Metzler suggests, since, for much of the public, a theory is a hunch, a guess, a speculation. The public may take home the message, for example, that "evolution is just a theory; it’s not proven or anything." She suggested "scientific understanding" instead.

For a lay audience, it can be disconcerting to hear scientific claims that seem to contradict each other. Metzler encouraged scientists to provide a sense of the scientific process, including uncertainty in science. "It’s about making the world less confusing, not more," she said. "Convey how uncertainty works and why it is a good thing and why [science] is a self-correcting system."

From Metzler’s perspective, opportunities for scientists to engage in public outreach have exploded in the last 5 years. Scientists can now keep a blog, contribute op-eds to magazines, or speak at science cafes, book clubs, and museums. Interest among scientists in such activities seems on the increase, too. The meeting room where Metzler was giving her talk was small, but it was packed, and when she was done at least a dozen scientists queued up to talk to her.

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