Clear science communication

Book review: Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public by Cornelia Dean

Price US$13.57
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674036352
ISBN-13: 978-0674036352

I bet you can name some good science communicators. People like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss among others

They stand out, don’t they? Probably because the rest of us are bad science communicators. We picture scientists as ponderous, given to continual qualification, lovers of jargon, bad speakers (as well as bad dressers) and not interested in communicating with the non-expert anyway. We don’t even want to communicate effectively with fellow scientists for a different speciality or research area.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. There are many scientists, particularly younger ones, who recognise science communication is important. Some of these probably consciously try to pick up relevant communication skills, and/or practise these in internet and other public settings.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many scientists who recognise science communication is important.

Responsible citizenship and science literacy

Cornelia Dean begins her book by stressing this importance. “Nowadays, people cannot fully function as citizens unless they understand developments in these fields.” She is referring to many fields influence our day-to-day lives which involve science or technology. Only an informed public can decide about social policies on reasonable and rational grounds.

Think about it. “Climate change, improving our aging infrastructure, the protection of endangered species, weapons of mass destruction, health care policy,” and so on.

This doesn’t come naturally. We are an irrational species. “Patterns of irrational thinking (are) so persistent they seem to be hardwired into the human brain. Unfortunately in politics, business, and elsewhere, there are plenty of people prepared to profit from these weaknesses.” Yes, most people do respect science. But even that gets used against them. Advertisers, politicians and propagandists try to cloak their arguments in the rhetoric of science. Pseudo-science is rampant – and profitable.

So, Dean argues that scientists have an ethical obligation to inform the public. Hence the social importance of their communication skills.

An overview

This is a brief and general book. It covers most areas of science communication. Readers wanting a deeper insight into specific areas will need to supplement their reading. However, the overview is important for scientists starting out on a communication path, or wishing to explore other, unfamiliar, avenues of communication

I like the way the book includes communication with journalists, public relations people, etc. Even where a scientist uses other intermediaries to communicate their message to the public there are important skills and understanding involved.  She recognises that scientists and journalists have different tasks and roles and both parties should understand this. Specifically the scientist should recognise the journalist’s need for sound bits, for clear messages and summaries. That they are also interested in accuracy but may see this differently, because of their role, to the way a scientist does.

She gives practical advice. What steps scientists should take to prepare for an interview? How they should ensure accurate recording of their message? This practical advice is continued throughout the book into different areas. Preparing and taking part in radio and TV interviews. How to dress for TV. Social relations with reporters and interviewers, etc. Thanking reporters for a good article.

Direct communication

Cornelia Dean runs through various forms of direct science communication. Here the scientist may not have anyone to help them and the practical advice she offers is important. The book is up-to-date on the different forms of communication. She even mentions Youtube with her description of the recent rap videos produced by the young CERN science writer Kate McAlpine. These provided a surprisingly accurate explanation of the Large Hadron Collider and the planned physics experiments.

She describes the particular requirements and communication style involved in communicating science on the internet using web site and blogs. Personally I felt she could have provided more detail in her description of science blogging – especially as it is an increasingly popular format. However, that may reflect my closer involvement with blogging than other areas she covers.

The book gives a good overview of the printed media and the specific requirements of each for science communication. From “letters to the editor’ to “Op Ed” columns. (Apparently Op Ed is derived from the fact these columns were traditionally on the page opposite the Editorial page). She argues that scientists have more scope than they think for contributing essays to such columns and magazines. Perhaps New Zealand scientists should be considering contributing to magazine essays and newspaper Op Ed columns

Book writing gets a chapter (starting with the advice “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself). So does appearing as an expert witness in legal situations and providing expert information in policy making venues.

Dean briefly considers other communication venues in the penultimate chapter (Other Venues).  Science Café, film-making, science festivals, and “outreach” in general. I am sure she could have expanded each of these become separate chapters in a much larger book.

The book does provide an extensive overview of the subject. The glaring omission for me was the book review! I have the impression that in the UK and USA this is an important format for discussing new, important or controversial areas of science and its relationship with society. I also notice that several science bloggers in New Zealander are producing such reviews. Oh well, perhaps someone else has written a useful book on the book review.

A social service and a career enhancer

Communication is not just a social service or duty for scientists. More and more it is an important skill for their professional success. Communication with peers at conferences and with papers is no longer enough. More and more we need to communicate with the non-specialist. With industry stakeholders in our science area. With policy makers and consultants. So even from an ambitious, selfish view, communication is an important scientific skill.

Another reason communication skills are important to professional success is possible institutional recognition of the value of that communication. Obviously that is still not common but in time we may well see blogging, participation in science festivals and writing for newspapers and on-line as important for assessment and promotion. “It would be nice if scientists who write about their work on blogs or craft articles for an outreach web site could see those efforts valued on an equal footing with the hours they spend coding software, for instance.”

Finally, I like the way that Cornelia Dean stresses the individual responsibility scientists have to communicate. At a time when science is under attack from religious, political and commercial organisations it is important for scientists to take a role in public life. To make available evidence-based science related to critical issues we face.

She discusses the public and political roles available. But also the less public participation in government offices, newsrooms and education. Even referring to the physicist Leon Ledermen’s idea that young scientist should be required to spend some time in such social areas. A kind of “tax’ or tithing a social responsibility accompanying the advantages a scientific education brings to the individual.

A bit harsh if imposed. But a nice idea anyway.

In summary and in Cornelia Dean’s words: “We need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill their obligations to society. It is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.”


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7 responses to “Clear science communication

  1. There is almost NOTHING I enjoy so much as trying to communicate scientific concepts. Whether its relativity, quantum physics, neural networks, or the etiology of cancer, it’s just plain FUN to try to get it across to the “non-scientist.”

    It’s a pity that so many working scientists don’t find it easy to communicate what they know the way somebody like Richard Feynmann could!


  2. Don’t blame scientists for that, Scott. It’s true if most profession. How often do we hear lawyers, economists, politicians, etc,, use jargon and become unintelligible to us.

    Theologians are probably the worst because they are not rational and always appear to have something to hide.

    Usually scientists at least have passion.

    Sent from my iPod


  3. I wasn’t blaming the scientists, Ken–I was pitying them. It’s just so much FUN to share the adventure and delight of science! I wish the people who actually do the hard work of it could enjoy all the fun of it.


  4. Some of us do, Scott. More all the time.

    But everybody has their own interests and skills and contributes in their own way. After all, someone has to do the really hard work of research.


  5. Absolutely true! But it’s a pleasant surprise to realize that this interconnected world we live in now allows amateurs (like me) to help the professionals explain the marvels of science to another generation.

    People who LOVE something are now free to use the Internet to share that passion. Technology enables an army of unfunded volunteers to help the experts explain what they’re learning.

    One example: aquaponics. It’s a growing field where tinkerers are making new discoveries everyday. The science of growing plants and fish in a closed ecosystem has been worked out by the biologists and chemists over the years, but its hobbyist/bloggers who are putting it into practice.

    In my opinion, it’s all part of what happens when 6,000,000,000 brains start to operate as a single neural network with over one quintillion interconnected neurons. That’s a LOT of processing power!


  6. Here’s a proposal as to how we can harness some of this “processing power” to get more detailed answers in climate science:


  7. Pingback: UX Machina: Collectives — MK Anderson

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