Sunday, April 15, 2012

Get out of the lab: scientists communicating with the world (Books - Am I Making Myself Clear, Don't be Such a Scientist, Escape from the Ivory Tower)

As I approach the home stretch of a PhD in neuroscience, I find that that the audience I most enjoy writing for about this cutting edge field is the general non-scientist reader. I read three books recently about scientists communicating with non-scientists. Am I Making Myself Clear by Cornelia Dean, Don't Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson, and Escape from the Ivory Tower by Nancy Baron have in common a belief that most scientists do this poorly and, ironically, that they should do it more often. Too long winded, too technical, and too many qualifications are the main criticisms, and each volume offers advice on how to be more effective.

Ms. Dean, former editor of the Science Times is the most succinct. Dr. Olson, a marine biologist turned filmmaker, the most chummy. Ms. Baron is the most well-formulated and comprehensive - not surprising as she founded a program to educate scientists in communication with the public. All three see scientists as failing similarly.

Scientists are stereotyped as data-obsessed, emotionally cold, overly analytic, and speaking in obscure jargon. They communicate about their work most with other scientists and have trouble cutting to the chase because this peer audience wants to know more than what the researcher thinks is the bottom line. They want to assess the tools. They want to mine the data - expressed in numbers. For instance, how many fewer bacteria were there after taking the medicine compared to before? Finally they will decide if the experimenters made a fair interpretation of their data and if their results occurred because the researcher's claim is true and not for some other reason.

Idea consumers just want to know the facts, argue the authors, by which they mean an interpretive narrative answering the question: what does the outcome mean for me. The challenge for scientists in bridging this gap is that the outcome of an experiment is not a fact. Numbers may appear factual because they are short and seem unequivocal. The number of bacteria is 1500 or is 1600, surely that's a fact, but scientists' version of wanting to know what that number means is different. Their narrative explains how another researcher could repeat their exact experiment for themselves, why the outcome supports their claim while acknowledging other explanations, and how likely it reflects what goes on in the real world.

Scientists practice this particular way of collecting information and describing results not because they are aloof, long-winded logicians who were born this way, but because they have the same brains as other people. These brains are remarkable at using previous experiences to make predictions about future ones. These occur lightening-fast, we don't know we are producing them, and they occur prior to rational thought. But the outcome of these processes is not always correct and it colors the behavior that follows it. For scientists, that could compromise accurate measurement and reasonable interpretation, so they learn a deliberate method.

The reason an experimental result ultimately deserves to enter the cultural reservoir we call knowledge is not because it is an irrefutable fact, and not because the scientists are smarter than other people (plenty aren't), but because the methods used to reach it have done their best to avert the naturally tendency of human brains to jump to conclusions. But by the time a scientist is done explaining how carefully they have done this, the average non-scientist may have a difficult time identifying the bottom line. You may be chuckling to yourself that this post is a case-in-point, but in addressing scientists as their readers, I would argue that these three books are more effective when they acknowledge the strengths of scientists’ communication style within the context of their field in addition to their weaknesses.

Cornelia Dean's Am I Making Myself Clear is a compact volume with the size and feel of a handbook. Dean is concerned that the average American citizen misunderstands science. The result is that government or industry can and do manipulate opinions to achieve their political goals, resulting in what she sees as poor decisions with dangerous costs in areas like healthcare, energy resources, and infrastructure. At the same time, she sees news media cutting their coverage of science. Her book is an analysis of what stands in the way of the public becoming better informed about science and technology. She invites researches to take responsibility for improving the quality of their communication and advocate for their engagement in the public sphere, covering the areas of journalism, books, radio, television, the internet, the court, and influencing policy makers directly.

The downside of Dean’s intimate knowledge of journalism is that she sees all the solutions coming from scientists.
There is not a lot you as a researcher can do to alter these systemic problems of journalism. But you can be conscious of them, and compensate for them.
In the context of her invitation it’s a little like saying, I’d love to date you but I can see we’d have a few problems and I’m not going to change. Dean knows the limits of print journalism so well that she can consider no possibility for change in that arena. If that is a slight weakness, the strength of this impassioned book is Dean’s analysis of the cultural differences between scientists and journalists. It might be summarized: while researchers see journalists as inaccurate, sensationalist, and ignorant, scientists see journalists as dull, and obsessed with details and process.

Dean was effective in making me reconsider the role of public relations professionals in communicating research results to the public. I have always been wary of their role as their training is generally not in science and their skill is turning ideas into products to be consumed. Dean’s chapter on this subject educated me on how a scientist can collaborate with a public relations officer who serves as the intermediary between them and the media.

Dean’s book does offer advice, but it is not a how-to. If she delivers the argument for why you should, Nancy Baron lays out the technique of how it can be accomplished in detail with useful case examples. Baron’s Escape From the Ivory Tower takes off from the point that you, the scientist, would like the significance of your work to be recognized by the public-at-large or to influence policy. Different media influence society in different ways and have different audiences, she writes, and higher education for scientists prepares them well to be researchers but prepares them poorly to communicate with audiences outside of science, so she is prepared to offer that education.

She echoes Dean in looking to scientists for solutions, but she strengthens that by having scientists do the arguing for her.
Pam Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford and director of the Leopold Leadership program, believes, “We all need to be advocates for the use of science in decision making…scientists,” she says, ”must talk about their research in a way that’s accessible to people who make public policy decisions.”
The strength of Baron’s approach, built in her years of leadership in the COMPASS and Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, is detailed knowledge of the field and having worked with many scientists on improving these skills. She enumerates many roles one can play: you can be pure scientist, arbiter, broker of alternative, or issue advocate; and actions you can perform: write an op-ed, give an interview on television, or offer your expertise to elected representatives. At the same time she often offers clarity on how. Her Message Box approach is one of the most helpful devices I’ve seen to assist one in distilling mounds of data qualified with warnings into terse overarching issues addressing specific problems, and their significance for a particular audience. I know I’m going to put it to use.

Her criticism of scientific journal's use of passive voice makes the problem sound a bit like a character flaw:
You have been trained to be rational and detached – to the point that you write in the passive voice.
Actually, I was dragged into using the passive voice kicking and screaming. It’s not a natural outgrowth of possessing a rational character or of using rational thought in my profession, and I am anything but detached from my subject. The passion may drive my involvement, but it can interfere with the disciplined method of my field. I look at writing a journal article in the passive voice as an exercise in mitigating the influence of my attachment, which can impose preconceptions on the initial steps of posing a hypothesis, designing methods, measuring, analyzing, and reporting results. It embodies through form for my reader that I made an attempt to lay aside the things that are most ‘me’ about my work: such as my hopes for a certain outcome.

Baron’s advice on turning model into action for communication venues that are more like a performance is sometimes impractical. It suggests that people who have spent their lives with certain habits of behavior suddenly act like someone else:
Let people hear that you are excited about what you do. They will put down their magazine or spatula and listen when they hear someone speaking with conviction and passion. Science is already viewed as dry and emotionless by too many. Convince them otherwise with your voice.
Great advice, but no one sits there trying to sound monotone. It a good analysis of what’s missing from some people’s speaking styles but it is not useful for someone who doesn’t already know how to do this. I am going to assume that her workshops are as successful as they are because they succeed in offering specific techniques. The number of times Baron’s advice strays into this territory are few, unfortunately, Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist is built on it.

His message is passionate, if a little pie-in-the-sky:
With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily – but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care.
Regrettably, his examples are limited to his own metamorphosis from biologist to filmmaker, and his prose is so breezy that it felt like he hired a typist to transfer his recorded musings in the shower from a Dictaphone. As a teacher with a respect for process, I was particularly put off by the key structural idea of his narrative. This roots his transformation in a formative critique Randy receive from his first Hollywood acting teacher who emasculated him in front of his fellow actors screaming:
Intellectuals intellectualize the world. They move it all into their heads. They suck the life out of life. And that’s why nobody wants to watch an intellectual act. Actors act. They actually do things. Intellectuals don’t act, they think and talk.
Which Olson translated into 'Stop Being Such a Scientist.' His chapter headings summarize his advice: Don’t Be So Cerebral, Don’t Be So Literal Minded, Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller, Don’t Be So Unlikeable, and finally: Be the Voice of Science. Unfortunately, the first four are all negative so not only are you made to feel that your personality is deficient you are not even told what to do about it. The last chapter finally offers something to do, but it can be summarized as: be someone else. After which I would advise: get therapy.

It’s not that the gist of what Olson offers is substantially different from Dean or Baron, it’s just that the tone is impractical to changing either ones opinion or behavior. Given that his profession is now film director, it made me wonder if he offered direction to actors in the same way, because numerous years of directing has taught me that: “don’t be like this, be like that” is unplayable direction. It feels like a critique of the person rather than the work, so it takes a lot of experience to translate such direction it into actable instructions. Plenty of people in the business would say, suck it up. Being a professional means making it happen anyway, but teaching a behavior, as opposed to factual subject matter, is a collaboration with peoples' states of being, and success is all about the words you choose.

To give the man credit, he has a sense of humor, he admires Stephen Jay Gould (2 points from me), he was a successful marine biologist and is now a successful Hollowood filmmaker (so he must be doing something right), and he offers some good advice about cutting to the chase. Using the structural principles of good storytelling to construct the "elevator pitch" version of your work is a practical idea you can take to the bank, I just couldn't get around the cutesy packaging.

So the bottom line on these three books: If you are looking for an overview of the main issues dividing the cultures of media professionals and scientists and a compelling case for why scientists should want to bridge this divide, Cornelia Dean is your woman. If you want a self-depricating, first-person take that reads like a Hollywood self-help book, go with Randy Olson. If you are more in the market for practical advice about communicating effectively and further resources about how to get there, then go with Nancy Baron.


Unknown said...

Maybe these books have good advice to scientists, but too often popular science writers fail to provide crucial information and distort or exaggerate the findings they report. In my intro to research methods course I make undergrads hunt down the real science, the peer reviewed journal articles, about which some popular account has been written, to see just how off the mark most popular science writing gets, in the presumed name of readability. The scientists' cautions about interpretation of the findings are usually ignored, weaknesses that the authors have identified are omitted, and typically correlation is confabulated into causality for hyperbolic effect. Read some Sharon Begley for example. And the popular science writers almost never provide references. You're lucky if you can pick out the researcher's name and university. I'll take science over soundbites every time.

Ted said...

Indeed, this is a related problem, one that both the Dean and the Baron books address. The cultures have different priorities in their writing, and while the books did a good job of saying what the problem is with science communication, they don't give enough time to WHY scientists are obligated within their field to discussing experiments at such a detailed level, as well as why they offer caveats to their own conclusions.

Ryan said...

Cornelia Dean it is...