I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about my future career and communicating out loud not in English.
Two things to understand about me:
First, I’ve wanted to follow just about every career path imaginable. This means that I fall hard into the category of graduate student who wants a PhD one week but not the next (and on those weeks I daydream about what type of menu I would create for my new food truck business). Second, I am not confident in expressing my thoughts out loud… somehow what I’m thinking, no matter how clear in my head, comes out as jumbled thoughts that maybe express something similar to what I mean.
The time that I spent reflecting left me resigned to the fact that I probably can’t give my all to both the PhD and the food trucking industries at the same time. But I’m okay with that, because what I really want is to incorporate photography and communication into my science career.
Sounds strange, right? I tell you that I am not confident in expressing my thoughts out loud and proceed to tell you that I want to communicate science.
Well, my experiences speaking more French than English this summer reminded me of the importance of being able to communicate despite language barriers. It reminded me that the language spoken around the biology department is more like a regional dialect.
This made me feel okay about the fact that I am a better communicator on paper.
A little story:
In forgetting the French word for pig (porc), and the others not understanding the English word pig, there was nothing left for me to do but to describe it as quickly as possible in the simplest way possible. I managed to say, “the little pink animal with the nose like this [imagine me pushing my nose gently towards my forehead with my pointer finger]”.
I savored the small giggle I got, and then quickly continued the story.
I couldn’t always do this. A few years ago, the conversation would have been frozen. The English word “pig” would have been playing on repeat in my head and I would have said, “never mind” and my story would have been left untold.
A pig is something that is widely recognized, even if the specific term to describe it is spoken in a foreign language. What if my inability to explain something as simple as “pig” had made this story end?
Non-scientists do not not speak our heavy dialect.
An obvious example is the word “theory”. To the general public, theory means a hunch, an idea or speculation. Microsoft Word even gives “belief” as a synonym for “theory”
But there are less obvious examples that we may not think about as often, or ever. For example, phrases that use the word “positive” are misleading:
A “positive trend” means we are headed towards an optimistic future, right?
A “positive feedback” means we received words of praise for our experiments, right?
As scientists, we are well versed in statistics and understand that a positive trend means upward and increasing, not necessarily “good”. We know that a positive feedback is a self-reinforcing brutal cycle, not necessarily a good one.
An inability to translate our science should not prevent our ideas from being exposed. As a young scientist, I can still remember back to my early days in college when I first began to read scientific papers. Those first few papers were always printed and covered in written definitions, the bulk of each paragraph was underlined or highlighted. I used all five colors of highlighter that came in the pack. Now these documents are saved as PDFs all over my computer’s desktop and hard drive. Before, I was just learning the language.
If the public doesn’t understand that they don’t understand our language, we must learn theirs. It takes practice to be good at something. We know how to speak their language, but we need to use it. We can’t continue to use terms like “uncertainty” or “error” in front of non-scientists unless we mean to convey that we made a mistake.
I do think that scientists acknowledge the importance of successfully communicating science to the public (for example, recent lab meeting topics have included conversations about citizen science, the “broader impacts” sections of proposals, structuring elevator pitches for scientists vs. businessmen vs. strangers at parties). I also think that we recognize that the public doesn’t really understand what we do. I mean, some of our stand-alone experiments really can sound ridiculous (see this article). I just think we need to actually practice this by encouraging young scientists to blog, to tweet and to write press releases as often as possible using as little scientific jargon as possible. Thanks to my advisor, Casey, for beginning weekly lab meetings with “soooo… who is going to write a blog post?” Only good can come from this.
Even though I am not the strongest oral communicator I succeeded at effectively communicating in a different language this summer (and in clarifying my career goals). Sometimes it took more words than I needed, sometimes I had to leave out details, but most times I found a way to describe things so that everyone was on the same page.
Even though I don’t remember the ending, I can assure you that everyone who heard my pig story is much better off today.
See Communicating the science of climate change by Sommerville and Hassol for some more examples of scientific terms that have a different meaning for the public and for some well formulated thoughts about science communication.