Is the Earth flat? A six-step guide to better communicate your scientific results to the public
The Earth is flat. We have been deceived by the big powers of the world. They are telling us lies to make us believe that they have control over our lives. No man has been on the moon, aliens have already made contact with humans, global warming is nonsense, vaccines are actually meant to harm us. You need to open your eyes, wake up, and see the world how it really is. We are being manipulated. It’s all a conspiracy.
A recent article on Current Biology found a link between conspiracy thinking and the rejection of science, as well as agency detection. Firstly, this means that the typical conspiracy theorist strongly doubts the objectivity of science and believes that science is driven by a political agenda. In addition, they likely believe that there is someone out there -–an unknown agent — that is benefiting from spreading disinformation and face results.
Another study shows a correlation between conspiratorial beliefs and the need for cognitive closure (NFCC). This means that, for a conspirationist, complex problems cannot be explained by a theory or any uncertainty, but that they require an absolute answer.
So, if conspiracy theorists want a concrete answer to things we can’t fully understand, why is scientific evidence often dismissed as constructed by the secret societies that control the word?
What if conspiracies are actually a symptom of an underlying problem and what if this problem originates with us, the scientists?
Life as a scientist
I’m a scientist myself (well, PhD student — but close enough), and I tend to analyse each theory with the assumption that it is based on some truth. I search for facts, critically deconstruct each facet, and draw my own conclusions. In addition — still, as a scientist — I look for facts in scientific publications, data, statistics, believing deeply in the scientific method: draw a hypothesis, observe, measure, experiment, and confirm or change your hypothesis.
With time, I realised there was a problem: I speak a different language than everyone else!
The day I started my PhD in chemistry, I knew I was working on “Biomass valorisation”, a broad topic that aims to give a renewable alternative to the oil and gas chemical industry. When I explained my research to friends and family, I was met with blank stares. I thought that maybe “biomass” was the complicated word, but it was only later that I realised that both were obscure words for most people. How naive was I!
My life as a scientist
I was at a conference once and I found myself talking to a material scientist in the medical field, who worked on prostheses. When I told him that I was working on “biomass valorisation”, I saw confusion all over his face, as I bet he saw the same on mine when he explained what he was working on.
It turns out that even scientists cannot understand each other at times.
Thinking about it, it makes sense: science is such an extensive field that we are divided into niches. Even in the niche I work in, “biomass” can mean a variety of thing. For a lot of people, it usually means plants in general, but for others, alimentary or human wastes (even cow poop!) are included in the list. “Valorisation” means “to add value”. In my field, we are trying to provide renewable solutions for necessities, from (bio)plastics to pharmaceuticals, so good luck in defining value.
However, it does save me time to say “biomass valorisation” as compared to “Uhm, there’s a process that wants to transform plants into plastics, but they produce something that they don’t have any idea of what to do with it, so they put poor PhD students to work, to try and figure it all out”.
If talking to a scientist was difficult, just imagine how I felt the day I fully realised that I couldn’t convey my message at all to a non-scientist. It was my first public outreach activity (when I finally got out of the lab): the European Researchers’ night.
I thought I had found a clever analogy of what I was working on, using caramel to attract and indulge the young kids in the crowd.
And it was a 7-year-old-something child who became my nightmare:
“What do you work on?”
“Is it something you eat?”
“No, but we use plants to…”
“And why do you have candy on your table?”
“I have caramel, because I work with something similar to a caramel. Do you know what happens when you heat up sugar?”
*Takes one candy with innocent eyes*
“You form caramel!”
“Exactly, and did you know that plants have sugars in them and we can make a lot of things out of them?”
“Like…is it a biotransformation?”
*Moments of shock to hear a 7-year-old saying biotransformation*
“In my case, it is a chemical transformation, a little bit like cooking! You want the sugars to become beautiful candy, but a part burns and becomes a dark caramel! With plants it is called humins”
“Humans? But humans are not caramel”
“No, not humans, humins, it’s just a name we use between us scientists”
“Why not blackamel? It’s a black caramel!”
*Grandma arrives, my saviour*
*Grabs another candy glaring at my soul and leaves*
That conversation made me realise that my language had so many words I could not translate into an easier language. But could I ever teach the whole world these words to make my life easier, or is there something I still have to learn?
The Solution: live jargon-free
I strongly believe that it is actually our duty, as scientists, to make an extra effort to include the public into our own little world. Without everyone’s support, science cannot progress: policies won’t be made, funding won’t be given, and misinformation may spread as a plague. We need to engage the public, inspire young kids to start a career in this wonderful field, and develop new technologies to improve life on Earth.
A recent survey found that scientists don’t feel comfortable to talk about science to the public either for lack of knowledge (or belief of) or time. In my experience, on the other hand, even if you admit you don’t know something, people will still appreciate you taking that little time to explain that part of science that you do know and they cannot fully grasp!
That said, how can scientists start to approach public engagement?
- First of all, talk to your family and friends! Try to explain in detail what you work on, and look for clues of confusion (tilted head, scrunched/raised eyebrows, head-scratching, yawning) when you use specific words. You can also try and write a short piece: with this readability test you know how complicated it is, scoring between Harry Potter and Harvard Law Review levels.
- Make a list of all the words that caused the confusion and add the ones you regularly use in your daily-scientific-life.
- Go on Thesaurus! Look for synonyms, and if you can’t find some, try to create your own! The simpler they are the more effectively you will convey your message. Want to take it to the extreme? The Up-Goer 5 text editor only allows 1,000 of the most common words to be used in your text. Hint: science is not in the list!
- Have a look online for news, blogs and other public engagement articles. Check for the words they use, but also the comments! See what people feel about what you work on, what are the controversies, and what should be explained throughout to avoid confusion.
- Talk about your work, and listen! Don’t be afraid to start blabbing about your work at a party — science is actually more interesting than what we may think. Listen to the responses and watch the reaction of your interlocutor, and again take notes of what might have been confusing.
- Start from point 1 and repeat, repeat, and repeat! Only practice makes perfect!
In addition, there are charity foundations, like Sense about Science, that are dedicating their efforts into bringing evidence and scientific facts to our daily lives, as well as to journalists, press officers, and policymakers. I had the chance to participate in one of their EU workshops in collaboration with the Marie Curie Alumni Association, Standing up for Science, where early stage researchers like myself learn how to make our voices heard and understand our limitations and the communication gap there is between science and the public. The foundation also has a few useful guides you can check out about how to talk to journalists, policymakers, and general public engagement.
The Take-Home Message
Bottom line — Don’t be afraid to speak up!
We should promote inclusion of the public into understanding why we are researching certain things and what are we trying to achieve.
Because the reality is, we are working for the benefit of humankind. Without science, we would not be able to continue to better our society. We wouldn’t have medicines, transportation methods, energy (who doesn’t love a hot shower), but also we wouldn’t know about the certain tragic effects of innovation and technology, such as climate change (yes, global warming is real) or the downsides of discovering nuclear energy.
If we are able to communicate the effects that science can have on society, not only will we have the support of the citizen which contributes to the University facilities and research centres, but also policies can be made based on evidence and facts given by the scientific community.
We can create a better society based on science.
It is us scientists who have a duty to our fellow citizen to make known what science is bringing to the table. We need to break the walls of science, and finally see the bigger picture. The bigger picture where science is not saying to your colleague: “Ha, I have better results than you!”, and, “I want to convince you that it’s only that way”. The bigger picture is that science is the foundation for a human society based on truths and one that works towards making the world a better place for each person, each animal, each plant, each rock.
Science is there to help. Now it’s time for scientists to learn how to let everybody know.
About the author
Layla Filiciotto is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Industrial Doctorate and PhD at the University of Córdoba (Spain) in the ITN project HUGS (GA 675325). She is a sustainability enthusiast and happy problem-solver from a small town in Sicily, with half of her genetic pool being Swedish. After living in the US for one year, Layla started her scientific career at the University of Messina, studying environmentally relevant reactions in air pollution control. She then obtained her Master of Science at Cardiff University, where she investigated the bio-chemical synthesis of natural pesticides. Now, her research focus is finding an application to a common biorefinery side-product, humins, between the Netherlands and Spain. When life gets tough, her motto is: “Keep calm and Curie on!”.
Follow us on Medium
Have any comments on this story? Make sure you share them, using the comment form below.