I think most researchers get into science because of an innate curiosity that drives us to ask how and why the world works. But in the lab, things usually don’t work the first time, so we also tend to develop a mistrust of anything that seems too easy or too good to be true. This skepticism is one of the key ingredients to successful science – it motivates us to gain a deeper understanding of the complex workings of the world and the human mind. However, it can also generate some gaps between successful science and successful sci-comm. For me, this boils down to some essential questions about balance in sci-comm:
- How do we simplify but stay true to the essential details?
- How do we get others excited about the possible implications of our work (the sci-comm) without giving false hope about those implications (the sci-con)?
- And even if we do all of that well, what happens if someone takes our careful scientific wording and runs with a hop skip and a quantum leap into conclusions that are not yet supported by the evidence?
These conundrums seem particularly salient in the context of the post-truth era and social media’s appeal to ever-diminishing attention spans. I feel strongly that we need to devote time to these questions if we’re serious about making science relevant to the broader population in a way that maintains (or restores) trust in the authority of the scientific process. But first, a little bit on how I got to this point…
Aside from dabbling in science outreach and communication, I’m a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies the microbiota-gut-brain axis. My interest in this area started back in my PhD, when I was using a probiotic treatment to try and dampen the effects of stress in young rats. The results were promising and super exciting to me (if you want to read the articles, you can find them here, here, and here). One surprising part of this process was the amount of public interest in my work. At any and every public forum where I’ve spoken, people have confided in me, telling me intimate details about their poop habits and how that’s affected their mental health. Although it can sometimes get a little awkward, most of the time it just leads to really interesting and engaged conversations. When they hear that my probiotic treatment “worked” (in my studies with rats), they invariably ask me which probiotic they should be taking. That’s when it gets complicated. Because so far, we haven’t found a reliable probiotic to reduce stress or other psychological problems in humans. I’ve always tried to be open and honest about the limitations of the research so far, but sometimes I’ve been left with the sinking feeling that all I did was dampen someone’s enthusiasm for science.
Safe to say, I’m not the only microbiome-gut-brain axis researcher that’s had these encounters with the public. There’s a lot of general interest in my field. There’s also been plenty of start-ups and industry investments that have come out of the science (and some pseudo-science), reflecting its potential commercial value. This has made it a real magnet for hype, so much so that Jonathan Eisen (a professor in microbiology & more at UC Davis; aka @phylogenomics on Twitter) started an award for “overselling the microbiome” (aka “microbiomania”). I’ve since realized that these issues are not really unique to the microbiome – the same issues crop up in most, if not all, fields. Twitter accounts like @justsaysinmice and award-winning organizations like Sense about Science (@senseaboutsci or https://senseaboutscience.org/) show that I’m not alone in worrying about irresponsible representation of science.
What can we do about this? Coming back to my three questions at the start, I don’t think there are easy answers, but here are some things that have helped me feel more comfortable with finding the balance in my sci-comm.
How do we simplify but stay true to the essential details?
- Practice! At any scientific conference, the first time you present your poster you fumble around a bit, do things in the wrong order, forget important points, whatever. But by the end of a two-hour poster session, you’re flying through it and charming everyone you meet. The same is true, even more so for public engagement – you probably have even less time to get your point across, so you have to make it count. It’s hard to give a polished, succinct, but accurate account of anything, so you need to practice your elevator pitch.
- Find a sounding board. Or even better, multiple sounding boards. I think that at least one of these people should be a fellow scientist who is outside your particular area of expertise – they should be able to provide insights from an arm’s length as to how your communication comes across. Ideally, sounding boards should be people you trust to give you honest, critical feedback.
- Find your personal comfort level. By practicing, you’ll learn more about where you draw the line between a good level of simplification that aids clear communication and over-simplification that veers into hyperbole.
- Get comfortable with saying “I/we don’t know”. While it might feel nice for scientists to be held up on a pedestal as the authority on all things, this can only lead to disappointment. If you can, point them to other resources that might have better answers. But also, just recognize that it’s ok to be stumped by a question. I try to convey that as part of the wonder of what I do as a scientist – there’s beauty in the fact that there’s still so much we don’t know about the world both at an individual level and as a society.
- Last but certainly not least, ask your audience. Ask them what they think, why they’re interested, how this applies to their lives, what questions they still have… All of these can open up some surprising lines of conversation that not only make for more engaging sci-comm but also open the door to find out about their misconceptions. In turn, this gives you the opportunity to address anything that needs correcting. This technique also places some level of expertise back with the audience, hopefully empowering them to engage with science again in the future.
How do we get others excited about the possible implications of our work (the sci-comm) without giving false hope about those implications (the sci-con)?
This question is highly related to the first, and I think all of things I mentioned above apply equally here. In addition, it’s helped me to:
- Re-frame any loss of enthusiasm. Maybe you couldn’t answer their question or your research isn’t going to solve all their problems right now. But what will they take away from the experience?
- Hopefully they learned a little about the scientific process. One of the most valuable aspects of sci-comm (IMHO) is that it sets a framework for critical evaluation of information from different sources. If they identified a gap in our current understanding or questioned/critiqued what you were telling them, then your interaction was a huge success. Try to turn it around and get them excited about the fact that they’re thinking like a scientist, with valid ideas about what needs to be done next.
- They probably also learned that scientists aren’t there to trick them or sell them something that won’t work. If so, you were part of building their trust in science and scientists.
And even if we do all of that well, what happens if someone takes our careful scientific wording and runs with a hop skip and a quantum leap into conclusions that are not yet supported by the evidence?
Sometimes this is out of our hands and happens despite the best of intentions. But there’s no need to be naïve or unprepared.
- Get some media training. The first time I spoke to a newspaper outlet I was incredibly nervous about how my work (and myself) would be represented. As a result, I gave a horrible interview that never got published (realistically, the best possible outcome from that situation). One of the best things I’ve done since then was a radio communications training, with an actual radio presenter who did a mock interview with me and recorded it. We listened back to the interview together (cringe!) and he pointed out all the weird or annoying things I had never noticed I was doing (double cringe!) and also gave me some compliments (argh, cringe again!) on the things I was doing well.
- If you don’t have access to media training, record yourself anyway. You can definitely do the exercise above with a colleague (again, someone you trust to give you honest feedback), or even by yourself as a starting point. As painful as it is to listen back to yourself speaking, it’s got to be one of the most effective ways to get better.
- Know your talking points. As part of the media training I did, I started to see how we can work with media professionals to give an interview that both parties can feel good about. Generally speaking, the interviewer is not there to be hostile, they’re just trying to find an interesting story that’s relevant to their audience. So work with them. Think about the 2-3 key points that you definitely want to get across in your interview. Now make sure that you can present those points in fun/funny/interesting and relevant ways. Write a cheat sheet if you need to, then steer the interview in the direction of your talking points. If you start telling a good story, most likely the interviewer will run with it and you’ll both be happy with the result.
- Know your weak spots. What are the tricky questions that you dread being asked? Those are the ones you have to prepare the most for, which takes me all the way back to my first point about the benefits of practice.
These are my thoughts, but I’m positive it’s not the whole story. I’d love to hear your opinions too, so please leave a comment if you’ve encountered similar problems or have any suggestions!