This week, the Guardian Science Desk posted an article suggesting that science writing is boring.
As someone who teaches science writers, I have to admit, they’re right. And I’d like to expand the list to include the other subject matters that I work with. It’s not just science writers who have difficulty making their subject compelling for an online audience. Accountants, business managers, CEOs, IT professionals, researchers of all stripes, software developers – in other words, most subject matter experts have difficulty communicating in a way that is interesting and readable to people outside their own discipline.
I was not, therefore, surprised to see the Guardian declare that two blogging sites (Futurity and The Conversation) maintained by scientists for the general public were not terribly readable, and I was delighted at their suggestions. I was, however, shocked and dismayed at the stance taken by the commenters, which I can only describe as reclusive.
One commenter described it as a “two cultures” problem; another claimed that “science and news don’t mix.” Several blamed the journalists for not understanding science and said that they would never speak to journalists again for that reason – a fine stance to take so long as blogs and other media outlets exist where scientists and other subject matter experts can themselves communicate, and so long as they are willing to communicate in ways suggested by the Guardian that are compelling and readable to members of the general public who are interested in these subjects and want to understand.
But many of those same commenters also claimed that the tenets of journalism did not and could not apply to their discipline because science was too complicated and too riddled with caveats to be boiled down to the kind of storytelling mode that journalism requires. As a member of a discipline that has been charged with irrelevancy, I urge science writers to take this article more seriously than they have done. Continue this trend, and you will find that the growing divide between your work and the public’s understanding of your work will result in dwindled funding, a glutted job market, and eventual unemployment.
There is only one point to the work that you do, and it is not to do it. It is not to share it with other likeminded subject matter experts. It is not to advance your career.
It is to communicate the results of your work with as many people as possible both inside and outside of your field so that they can take advantage of your successes and capitalize on your failures. That is what is meant by adding to the base of human knowledge. You don’t get there by producing a piece that is only comprehensible to a tiny little guild that has been initiated.
You get there by becoming a teacher, by learning how to communicate with as broad an audience as possible. If you are in any way passionate about your subject, if you care at all about the work that you do, you will become a master communicator so that everyone from the smallest child to the most powerful leader of nations, will understand what it is you do and why it matters.
If that means that you have to learn how to write like a journalist, you learn how to write like a journalist. If that means you need to learn how to speak in front of a large audience, you learn how to speak in front of a large audience. If that means you need to learn how to put together a PowerPoint presentation, you learn how to put together a PowerPoint presentation. Because communication is key!
The work you do matters not unless you can share it with others.
And that brings me to my second point, which is, as I pointed out in my comment on the Guardian blog, stop blaming other people. It’s not their fault that they don’t understand your research. It’s yours. You haven’t found a way to make it clear to them.
If they don’t understand it, it’s not because it’s too complicated, it’s not because they haven’t had the right level of education, it’s not because they’re too biased to get it. It’s because you haven’t mastered the skills of communication sufficiently to find a way to reach out to them. It’s your job to make it understandable.
Finally, and most importantly, accept the fact that people come at facts – including data, including words – from different perspectives. This is the very reason why communicating your results to the public is the final and most important step in any research project. Because after having been tied to the laboratory results for so long, anyone can get tunnel vision.
It takes someone with a broader perspective, with a base of knowledge that you don’t have, to interpret the fact set in a different way and perhaps bring about a greater connection than you alone could ever have done.
In the meantime, that will create what looks to you like misunderstanding. It isn’t. Other people are adding their own experience and knowledge base to your work. It takes a master teacher to allow that process to happen, to filter out the truly irrelevant noise, and to brighten at the new possibilities that are being engendered. Until you’re sure that you’ve reached that level, be very cautious in gainsaying your public.
They are, after all, the final arbiters of your work.