The crux of the matter – language, context, and narrative

Throughout this series, I have highlighted the pitfalls and issues associated with effective communication of scientific knowledge to and with the public. This has largely been fueled by a recent paper highlighting these points as stepping stones and hurdles which scientists face and can develop upon to create strategies for becoming better at public communication. However, I’ve yet to offer any kind of solution.

Yesterday, I wrote briefly about the way in which geoscientists can use different plots to help them reconstruct scientific information into a digestible narrative format, taking on the style of a refashioned ‘story’. Continuing to draw upon the analysis by Iain Stewart and Ted Nield, this post will focus on how developing a narrative and particular language can help researchers to ‘talk geoscience’ in a more engaging manner.

To reiterate the actual issue, I’m going to steal a quote from the Stewart and Nield paper citing the geoscientist and science writer Rex Buchanan (it’s like he was made to be a geoscientist with a name like that..):

“We do a mediocre job of helping adults to learn about and appreciate science. Many of the science stories that I read in newspapers or try to watch on television aren’t very engaging. Some are too long, and many seem irrelevant. Popular science often seems like castor oil – some we should take because it’s good for us, not because we want too” (2005)

I don’t think the current situation is quite as dire as this makes out. There are now small armies of dedicated ‘science communicators’ at many institutions, many scientists and learned societies are becoming increasingly involved with this, and the internet is ablaze with science blogs, both amateur and professional. The scientific community appears to be embracing the role of science communication, based on the realisation that it is actually themselves who are best placed, and probably best equipped to do so in this digital era.

The manner in which we communicate with our audiences is still a largely unresolved issue. This is partially driven by the fact that we often simply do not, and cannot know who we are communicating to, which makes the communication format increasingly challenging, and the quantitative assessment of success or impact a nightmare of entangled metrics. On the ‘supply’ side, the reasons why there is still an over-arching inability for scientists to communicate are myriad and complex. Perhaps the main barrier here, is not that science is inherently complex, but the language which science and scientists use. Anyone who reads a scientific paper will be caught up in the baffling lexicon and whirlwind of field-specific science-speak. This is natural. It takes a long time to become accustomed to the way in which scientists communicate among themselves, principally through journals. I’ve been in academia for over 5 years now, and still the geoscientific literature can be confounding at times. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – this stuff is complicated!

What we need is a standardised format based on how the fundamentals of rhetoric, linguistics, and cognitive psychology (Stewart and Nield, 2012) to organise our thoughts and allow us to express them in ways that non-specialist or non-scientific audiences may be able to interact with. Perhaps also, something that I’m sure will annoy the hell out of many scientists, is the need to admit that our language is overly technical, such that it can alienate potential audiences and act as a real barrier to public communication. I think there has never been more of a time to acknowledge this than with the impending onset of near-global open access to the scientific literature (with the UK leading the way). Simply put, what’s the point in making all of this scientific information open to the public, if they can’t read it? Access does not imply accessibility. To pull a stat from Stewart and Nield: “61% of surveyed geoscientists considered that ‘most scientists are so intellectual and immersed in their own jargon that they can’t communicate with journalists or the public.’” Most is the key word here. A majority, but not all – many scientists I know personally are skilled communicators, whether it be through blogging, podcasts, direct communications, practical demonstrations, or the use of Barbie dolls (hi Tony). The use of context can be powerful in overcoming this, by providing points of reference and using metaphors and analogy to communicate complexity in digestible ways. Background information becomes redundant through this, as the placement of information in a context which is engaging and memorable at the same time outdoes the need for a 101-style education. This is a significant difference between the way in which scientists communicate, and the demand of the public. Generally speaking, scientists want to know background details, followed by supporting information, topped off with conclusions, implications, and results. Does a non-specialist audience want to know all of this? Or just the relevance to them – the ‘so what?’ question. In this respect, the context, the relevance and real-life implications are substantially more important than the communication of every specific detail.

Language is the first step in understanding what phrases and terms to use and when. The broader challenge comes from organising these, with a theme and narrative, to fashion a story with an explicit message. I think this just comes from practice – test, learn, adapt, and throughout it all remain passionate, not-boring, and most of all have a damn good time doing it! If you can’t demonstrate that your science is fun and exciting, have fun trying to get someone else to feel that way. I’m pretty lucky being a palaeontologist, as I think this is one of the easier subjects for people to get excited about (from personal experience with random people, mostly in London). Scientists can learn a thing or two from the mass media in this respect – have a hook, a context, and a message that will resonate with people and be remembered. Go out all guns blazing, but don’t forget about the actual content in the process, and the placement of information within the bigger story.

Do it.

One thing to be mindful of during all of this is the concept of ‘dumbing down’ for the audience, which is often conflated with the idea of reframing a message to suit a particular purpose or audience. This charge is often made against scientists, and that we need to become better at conveying complexity; but if this is so, then the case that scientific information is too complicated with an overly-technical language has to be dropped. It cannot be both ways. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’, but it can be about simplification, which is really just a nicer way of saying ‘we removed all the unnecessary tech-speak’, while reframing the information in a more engaging format. If you want to be blunt, this is ‘dumbing down’, but only in the same way a lecturer would give the same presentation to a class of masters students then first year undergraduates. Different audience levels require different modes of language, and this example is perfectly transferable between the scientific community and non-specialist audiences.

If all else fails, become a palaeontologist.

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1 thought on “The crux of the matter – language, context, and narrative

  1. I often feel/ have felt the unnecessary language used in sciences, especially for papers. A lot of what I have read in, say, psychological papers is almost a necessity to make the paper so difficult that the average person can read the words, but the meaning will elude him/her. This is not good communication. This is being somewhat conceited as a science. People want to know what’s going on and how and why…this is a way. Just speak as a person would who didn’t have a PH.D.


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