I’d like to continue my observations where I left off yesterday: the issue of trust. Let me talk a little bit about the collaboration between a researcher and a science communicator. When I start working with a scientist I haven’t met before, they may worry:

  • Is she going to depict my findings in a way that is distorted or that could be misunderstood?
  • Will she lure me into making statements I’ll regret later?
  • Will she try to make me seem like an expert in something I’m not?
  • And even if she does none of this: Will somebody – a reader with a strong social media presence, or a journalist – take some of my statements out of context?
  • And finally: I don’t even know how to communicate to a broader audience.

These concerns are all comprehensible, but after taking that brave step and starting a collaboration, they will see that the first two were unfounded, and trust starts to set in. As for the concern about being put forward as an expert of something they’re not – this is a tricky one. We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic. A practicing physician makes a statement, and someone says: “But they’re not a virologist, they can’t possibly know!” A virologist makes a statement, and someone objects: But that someone is not an expert in public health!

Let me give you another example from BOLD, the blog platform I developed and headed for the Jacobs Foundation for 4 years; the blog’s main focus is children’s learning, and it features contributions from scientists in various disciplines. We all agree: a cognitive neuroscientist is not an expert in educational practices. But they can share deep observations about how schooling affects the development of the human brain that are valuable to all those who are experts in educational practices. They may also be working in an interdisciplinary collaboration with experts in educational science or even with practitioners from the field of education, and could therefore have interesting insights to share.

Not cast in stone, but an invitation for dialogue

In this scenario, my job as a science communicator is to say: “If you care about education, listen up! This researcher has some important insights to share.” My job is also to make it clear that this researcher is not telling teachers what to do, and they are certainly not calling into question the expertise of educational scientists. Their statements should not be understood as cast in stone, but as an invitation for dialogue.

However, we science communicators can only do our job, and it would be helpful if certain audiences and certain media outlets became more sensitized to differentiating between “fake experts” and experts who are in a position to make careful and well-founded assumption about something that’s not their immediate area of expertise. And, while working with professional science communicators helps, more funds and attention for science journalism would also be important to improve this situation.

Regarding the fourth concern I mentioned, that something might be taken out of context: I’d like to address this in a separate post, as this is also a tricky one and deserves some reflection.

Just a few words about the last concern, “I don’t even know how to communicate to a broader audience”, in 90% of all cases, that turns out to be untrue, often to the great surprise of the researchers themselves! Whether they engage in an interview about their work and insights, write their own piece while being coached by science communicators or team up with us to create a video, most of them end up admitting that communicating their science to a lay audience was not only easier than they’d thought, but also a lot of fun.

I originally published this post on my LinkedIn profile in October 2020.