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Ask Dr. Editor

Effective science communication deconstructed

Strategies to engage the public in your research topic.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | SEP 11 2020

Question

Now that I have tenure, I’m interested in doing more public engagement and science communications. How should I go about getting people listening?

– Anonymous (Physics)

Dr. Editor’s response:

Public scholarship has a strong appeal. Many researchers care passionately about their fields, and are motivated by the desire to help others to appreciate the usefulness and the complexity of their work.

It’s a good idea to do some research before beginning your public engagement campaign – not just so that you do this work well, but also because ineffective public engagement can have significant negative consequences.

As Carl Wieman has shown in the physics classroom, ineffective teaching strategies can lead students to believe “that physics knowledge is just the claim of an arbitrary authority, that physics does not apply to anything outside the classroom, and that physics problem solving is just about memorizing answers to irrelevant problems” (2007).

It’s easy to imagine how such an effect could be amplified outside of the classroom, and thus how poor science communication can reinforce contemporary political divides between so-called “elites” and “non-elites.”

Public engagement, done poorly, is dangerous.

Rather than laying out the rules of effective science communication — that’d take much more space than this column permits! Consider starting with Dr. Weiman’s Improving How Universities Teach (Harvard, 2017) — let’s look at one example of effective public-facing science communication, and examine why it works as well as it does.

Great science communication exemplified

Gwenaëlle Thomas, YouTuber and PhD student at Duke University, published a short video in late July about her research as a part of the #BlackNeuroRollCall. In under two minutes, she uses three separate strategies to effectively communicate her research:

1. Connect unfamiliar concepts to familiar ones

After Ms. Thomas introduces herself, establishing her credibility to teach us about the brain, she dives in with an analogy: a string of lights on a Christmas tree. By connecting her complex topic — the brain’s responses to medication — to a familiar one — a string of Christmas lights — she sets up her research as something her audience can easily recall and thus readily understand.

This comparison is effective because the items being compared operate in similar ways (see Jamrozik et al, 2006). The best metaphors and analogies connect at the level of underlying commonalities, rather than superficial, surface characteristics.

And the Christmas tree light analogy will not only help her audience to understand Ms. Thomas’s work — it will also make her message seem more credible. As Alter and Oppenheimer have argued, “retrieval fluency” — the “subjective ease or difficulty with which people bring to mind exemplars that conform to a particular rule” — informs our evaluation of the truth or falsity of a claim (2009: 224). “In the absence of objective knowledge,” Alter and Oppenheimer have shown, “people are forced to evaluate truth using other cues that imply truth of fallacy” (2009: 227). Ms. Thomas’s Christmas tree light analogy not only helps her audience to understand her work — it also primes them to believe that her claims are true by drawing on their memory and prior understanding.

2. Make the abstract concrete

Ms. Thomas repeatedly connects abstract concepts to concrete, tangible, familiar things. Not many people will be able to picture an electrical circuit, but everyone knows what it means to “think, feel, or move.” As someone who isn’t a clinician, I may not at first understand what she means by “therapies,” but I will understand “drug options like antidepressants or antipsychotics.”

Academics suffer from the “curse of knowledge”: the inability to understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t have that same information (see for example Birch et al 2017). Once you get it, it’s hard to un-get it.

In your science communication, you may not be able to anticipate what your audience will find hard to understand. To combat this effect, do what Ms. Thomas does: integrate examples to illustrate your points, draw on physical or sensory details, and keep humans — rather than non-human concepts — in the subject position in your sentences.

Even when providing her research question, Ms. Thomas makes the abstract concrete. She poses her research question, “what does the brain look like in behavioral states?”, and then provides examples of what these behavioral states might be: “what does your brain look like when you’re just sitting down chilling? Or, what does your brain look like when you’re scared, happy or sad?” For those who can’t imagine the abstract “behavioral states,” Ms. Thomas’s illustrative “sitting down chilling” serves as an exemplar that can be easily pictured in the mind’s eye — and thus easily understood.

3. Make it accessible

The imagined audience for many researchers is the general public — yet the general public is a wide and diverse population. By adding captions to her video, Ms. Thomas makes her video accessible for people who are hard of hearing, to speakers of English as a foreign language who find it easier to understand through reading than through listening.

Your university’s teaching or technology centre should be able to help you to add captions to your video. EdTech like Kaltura, for example, can automate captioning so that you don’t need to transcribe the text of your video. Alternatively, you might use a service like Trint to add the transcript of your audio to your website, which will both make your content accessible and help Google’s spiders to locate your site.

Just make sure to check with your institution before experimenting with this software, to stay on the right side of the protection of privacy laws that govern public institutions.

In summary

Gwenaëlle Thomas’s two-minute video draws on multiple strategies to share her research and its importance. In addition to the three techniques identified above, She also avoids jargon, keeps her message short, and — in the text of her tweet — legitimizes the patient experience by noting that it is “fair” to want to avoid medications with bad side effects. Her tweet provides a great example to follow when striving to engage the public.

And if you look at the dozens of replies to her tweet, you’ll see that she hasn’t just reached non-scholars with her messaging — she has also reached clinicians, medical doctors, and other researchers, many of whom are now persuaded of the significance of her work. Effective science communication will amplify your message across a range of audiences and have impacts that you may not anticipate. Pursue it using an evidence-informed approach.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Marina Joubert / September 17, 2020 at 04:56

    A really great and useful case study analsying effective scicomm – thank you!