Science communication in the digital age
Independent of looking at a student of life sciences, a researcher, coordinator, journalist or someone involved in public relations, the reasons why all these people communicate science are very similar.
First of all, researchers communicate their science to share their knowledge with the scientific community and earn credibility for their work. In addition to this ’bread and butter’ business, some scientists choose to communicate more. They use the Internet and social media to share up-to-date research for two reasons: growing their professional network and interacting with an audience. This audience goes beyond the professional scientists who read publications in scientific journals. By using modern media tools, scientists can speak to anyone. Here, the ‚why‘ of science communication changes from presenting and analyzing data in journals towards a broader knowledge generation for the general public.
The motivation is also different. Most of the time, scientists write publications with extrinsic motivation, that is, because they have to (publish or perish). Science communication with the public (in person or using the Internet) is often intrinsic, which means that it’s a personal decision to share knowledge. As research points out, intrinsic motivation is way more powerful and enhances creativity, as well improving the overall quality of outcomes.
If you communicate your science, take a look at your motivation for different occasions in which you do this and whether it makes a difference if you are forced to share your knowledge (publications, talks, seminars) or if it is your own choice to share (social media, private conversations).
On top of sharing knowledge, people involved in science communication are nowadays faced with the challenge of curating and changing knowledge. The digital age offers a vast amount of information over the Internet for every topic and if the reader already has a certain mindset (e.g. climate change is fake, Santa Clause is real), it is very easy to find a lot of sources online that support this opinion.
You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.
Sharing scientific knowledge using modern media is faster and easier than the common peer review for scientific publications process. Scientific knowledge can be spread online with no curation by the scientific community, which can make it very hard for the reader to verify the facts that went into the statement. Hot topics such as genetically modified organisms, climate change, global diseases, etc. accumulate as many ’scientific facts‘ that prove or disprove the claims. What is true information and how can you convince your readers?
Passing on scientific knowledge to the public has been the job of the media for a long time. It is still an important role, but it’s not the only one anymore. The public can access scientific knowledge themselves on the Internet so we need people who take responsibility in this matter. Scientists spend their whole careers creating new knowledge. They should be able to tell it the right way. Here arises the challenge to modern science communication – it has to be sold to the public. We think of salespeople as greedy business people who would do anything to sell cars and insurances. But everyone is selling, especially scientists. If you try to persuade someone, change his or her mind, convince someone of something (e.g. scientific knowledge), you are selling.
In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink (@) shows that selling occurs all the time in everyday life. Today, when information can be accessed by anyone, selling is not anymore about solving problems. If for example, you would like to buy a new vaccum cleaner, you don’t need salespeople to tell you which one. You google and compare models online and then buy one on Amazon. Today, selling is about finding problems. Maybe a new vaccum cleaner is not your real problem. Maybe you need a new carpet that catches less dirt or windows and repel dust.
In terms of science communication, the situation is similar. Scientists, like salespeople, do not hold the monopol on information anymore – it’s out there and easily accessible. The challenge is to change peoples‘ minds with it. Scientists use facts and statistics to prove statements. Lay people are not as open to this kind of communication as to, for example, emotions. A picture of a polar bear on a little ice shelf creates empathy and draws more attention than sharing the fact that ice levels in the Arctic have declined to the fourth-lowest point on record. So what should we be saying when sharing scientific knowledge?
When sharing scientific knowledge it is important to adapt to the audience and package your story in a compelling way for the target group. This is again a huge challenge for a lot of scientists, especially the ones who are in business for a long time. This ability to shift your angle of view and put yourself into someone else’s shoes is getting harder the more you are used to the ‚tunnel vision‘ of science. With this I mean getting deeper and deeper into a specific topic (which is crucial for scientific success) and only surrounding yourself with people from your field of research.
Additionally, scientists who speak using simple words when addressing the public are often critizised because they ‚dumbing down‘ a scientific message. But speaking only in jargon in order to sound elaborate and important is useless in a time when scientists are no longer the keepers of information. The information gets to the public anyway, science communicators should take care of making it appealing and easy to understand.
My advice as a scientist and science communicator is: While communicating science because we have to let’s not forget the ‚why‘ and use our skills to curate and create knowledge in such a way that the public is guided in this jungle of scientific facts and distracting cat videos. Scientists are no longer keepers of information, but we are still among those who should educate people with true knowledge.