A talk entitled “Telling Science Stories: Dispatch from the Conflict Zone” was featured on the opening day of March’s ACS National meeting in San Diego.
Amy Harmon, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, spoke on bridging the communication gap of the public’s perception of science. With the perspective of someone not formally trained in the sciences – her degree is in American Culture – her writing focuses on the impact of science on the public.
Among her articles that have garnered attention for presenting objective science in a societal context are “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” and “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World”. She challenged us by claiming the public is more interested in science than we scientists give them credit for. The disconnect could be due to our drive for accuracy over building public trust in the principles, scientific arrogance, or simply a lack of practice in story-telling.
To turn us into more effective communicators, she shared some of the techniques she uses in communicating science:
- Find the story in your science —it needs character, plot, and suspense. Immerse yourself in the story, not forgetting to deliver in a plain-spoken manner.
- Illustrate the science issue by creating an analogy to a situation familiar to the listener.
- State what is obvious, for it might not be obvious to others.
- Keep zero-tolerance for jargon. It alienates. Use simple English.
To present our work to nonscientists with an engaging story line, she suggested the use of suspense. She pointed out where plenty of conflict already exists in science and encouraged us to take advantage of it in setting up a plot to relate our science to the public. “Science has all the hallmarks of a suspenseful story— with trials, errors, and funding setbacks.”
This is not the angle of science writing and speaking that we use in our professional lives where the importance of science is inherent to our jobs. For a change, let’s follow Amy Harmon’s example and embark on story-telling to reach the majority of nonscientists around us.