Science Through Story
If I had to choose the one thing that the science community fails at on a regular basis, it would be communicating. I’m not talking about lousy cutesy Powerpoints or jargon-y filled journal articles (although I’ve certainly suffered through my share of those.) I’m saying that, as a whole, we suck at conveying to the general public:
1. Our results
2. What they mean as a whole within the context of our field, the science genre, and the world.
The major barrier happens, I think, because most of us spend the days talking to each other, or to students interested in what we have to say (at least in the sense of I-have-to-get-through-this-class.) So we inadvertently train ourselves to become useless when we’re called on to explain why it’s important to know about the genome of the Central American tree frog. (It is, by the way. I checked.)
Here’s what most “lay people” want to know about science:
- Is it going to cure cancer (diabetes, heart disease, scabies?)
- Is it going to affect me? Right now, or twenty years from now?
- Does this contradict something I heard from the science community six months ago, and, if so, why should I believe you now, or ever again, for that matter?
We in the science community know that none of these questions come close to why we do what we do. With the exception of a few good science bloggers (most of whom still focus on the Scientific American/Smithsonian/Discover/National Geographic cohort as their audience,) we tend to ignore a huge swath of the American public as being disinterested or, quite frankly, unable to understand what we’re doing. We’re burned out, underfunded, and worked against by leaders of one political party.
But I don’t think it’s hopeless. What I do think we need to do is to tell stories. Our brains like stories, and we have a hundred thousand year history of using them to great effect. Humans like to know how we’ve gotten to where we are now.
And some of us are trying. The internet is full of great science stories, people who know how to communicate in short, pithy bursts of verbiage; of people who make excellent five minute videos; people who create easy to grasp infographics. Why aren’t we all doing that?