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The Black Hole

More About Communicating Science to NonScientists

BY BETH | APR 08 2010

I recently attended a Stats Can workshop and it struck me that a few of the things I learned about there would be useful here in our conversations about communicating science to nonscientists.

One was “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results” from the National Council on Public Polls.  While this list is geared towards polls specifically, a lot of the questions are relevant to scientific study in general.   Things like “who did the research?” and “who paid for the research?” and “how were study subjects selected?” are all good questions for a reader to ask about a scientific study.  So, if you are interested in educating journalists (or other nonscientists) in the types of questions to ask when they hear about a study, passing on that list may be a useful start.

Second, I learned about something called the fog index. Often academics get so used to their academic style of writing, they forget that lay audiences won’t know all the giant, specialized words they use.  I’ve often joked that I specialize in “academic-to-English” translation for colleagues who are trying to write for a lay audience but can’t seem to see that, despite their best efforts, what they’ve written about their research is impenetrable to someone with fewer than two university degrees in their specialty.  The fog index is a quick and dirty way to assess how readable your writing is.  You calculate the fog index by:

“1. Tak[ing] a full passage that is around 100 words (do not omit any sentences).
2. Find[ing] the average sentence length (divide the number of words by the number of sentences).
3. Count[ing] words with three or more syllables (complex words), not including proper nouns (for example, Djibouti), familiar jargon or compound words, or common suffixes such as -es, -ed, or -ing as a syllable.
4. Add[ing] the average sentence length and the percentage of complex words”
5. Multiply[ing] the result by 0.4(Source)

As a formula, it looks like this:

The result of this calculation gives you an approximation of how many years of schooling you would need to understand the passage. For example, this blog posting has a fog index of 11, so someone would need at least a grade 11 education to be able to read it (by contrast, the fog index of the abstract of my thesis is 23 – meaning you’d need a PhD to understand it!)).  It’s not a perfect measure, of course –  not all words with three or more syllables are hard to understand and not all short words are easy to understand – but it does give you a sense of whether the news release or letter to your MP that you just wrote about your research would require a postgraduate education to decipher!

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  1. Sonja / April 13, 2010 at 20:09

    Thanks for the post! I would have so much more confidence in the media if journalists did indeed ask a few critical questions before reporting poll results. (and I too would like to see the same principles applied to science journalism)