I recently came across a video posted by the prominent German scientist, science communicator, TV presenter and YouTuber Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim. In that video, she explained why it’s so important to apply rigorous quality standards not only to science, but also to science communication.

I agree, and would also like to point out that science communication is not simply about “translating” scientific findings into language a general reader can understand. Too often, communicators see their role, as they engage in science outreach or communicate scientific insights, as merely presenting complex findings in a manner that is accessible to a lay audience. I, too, may have held that view in the past.

But it’s not that simple. The process of putting scientific observations into layman’s terms needs to conform to the rules of critical thinking; indeed, it is a challenge that requires something similar to scientific thinking. If science outreach is to be more credible than PR, it is crucial for communicators to scrutinize, dig deeper and challenge supposed “certainties.”

This is why the four-eyes (or even better: six-eyes) principle is crucial in science outreach. Researchers may need help to understand how various aspects of their findings will resonate with different audiences when conveyed in a certain way, while a communicator always needs to be alert, when talking about the “state of knowledge”, to pitfalls such as scientific myths or controversial issues that require special caution.  

This brings me back to something I noted in an earlier post: Science communication is ideally done in a team. This is not to say that exceptional individuals who are capable of doing everything on their own do not exist, but all at the same time such an individual would have to:

  • have a clear overview of a certain field of research – knowing where there is consensus, what’s not known, and what’s controversial in that field and related areas,
  • be able to explain the details of the latest findings and put them into a broader context,
  • be familiar with specific audiences and able to take into account their contexts and the potential effects of findings on them (e.g. policy, industries, any individuals affected by the findings),
  • and finally, have a command of the tools of effective communication and storytelling.

Obviously, it would be much easier for two to four people, working together, to fulfill these requirements, rather than just a single individual.

Learning to accept the fact that knowledge is never settled

One essential fact about science is that knowledge is never “settled,” and that consensus is rare. A communicator and storyteller has to learn to tolerate ambiguity and help the audience learn this as well.

A few examples from BOLD, a blog focused on children’s learning that I developed and managed for the Jacobs Foundation for four years: There are numerous neuromyths about how the human brain learns (which are relatively easy to debunk); there is no universally accepted understanding of the nature of intelligence; there is no consensus on the validity of concepts such as mindfulness; and there is a huge controversy regarding the effects of media exposure on children’s and young people’s mental health. Regarding the last point: Although the latest research has shown no detectable causality (except in vulnerable populations, where many other factors may be at play), some communicators – and some journalists – seize on popular claims and demonize children’s media use, resulting in fearmongering that helps no one.

This tendency to see science through the lens of popular misconceptions and even conspiracy theories has been evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. If researchers want to avoid being caught in the middle and exploited by ideologues, they would be wise to collaborate with professional science communicators. And science communicators, acknowledging the complexity and depth of the topics they are trying to turn into stories, should insist on working closely with researchers.

This rigor and carefulness, by the way, also applies to communication on social media, despite the fact that this is often regarded as less serious. Perhaps this will be a topic of one of my future posts. As always, I’m looking forward to feedback, objections, and contributions from my network!

 

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