Have you ever read a scientific paper that simultaneously left you in deep admiration, but also crushed? I have – just now. It’s Rubega et al. 2021, “Assessment by audiences shows little effect of science communication training”. In a nutshell, several of the authors teach what sounds like an absolutely terrific graduate course in science communication; they used elegantly designed methods to test whether taking the course helps students do better at science communication; and much to their (and my) disappointment, they found that the answer was a pretty convincing “no”. To which I can really only say “argh”.
I won’t recapitulate the study in detail, because you should read the paper. You won’t regret doing so: it’s beautifully clear and eminently readable. And so clever! The authors measured communication effectiveness* for students before and after they took the course – and, elegantly, for matched “control” students who didn’t take the course. Both groups got better over time – but not by much, and the students in the course didn’t improve more than controls. Not only that: different observers showed remarkably little agreement in rating the effectiveness of any particular student. In other words: teaching science communication doesn’t make better science communicators, and in any event, different observers don’t even agree on which science communicators are better. As I say: “argh”.
This all raises some extremely interesting questions about science communication, and teaching, and talent. But before getting to those: can we celebrate the bravery of instructors who take rigorous steps to measure whether or not their course is effective? And, upon finding that it is (arguably**) not, who publish the results? I am somewhere between impressed and astounded.
OK, those interesting questions. First, what’s up with the lack of agreement in scoring? In the paper, different observers simply didn’t agree on which science communicators are better. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Some people idolize David Suzuki, while others can’t stand him; ditto for Neil deGrasse Tyson. Perhaps science communication is more art than science in the sense that there isn’t a single scale from worse to better. Perhaps people relate to science communicators on an idiosyncratic and personal level, and that relationship is more important than the number of jargon words per minute (or any other objectively measurable thing). Nobody expects us all to agree on whether Manet or Monet was a better painter; maybe nobody should expect us all to agree on whether Carl Sagan or Bill Nye was (is) a better science communicator.*** But surely we’d all agree on something about this? Surely the observer panel would all agree that Suzuki, deGrasse Tyson, Sagan, and Nye all communicate science better than me? You’d hope so – but the paper leaves me wondering.
Second, can you really not teach science communication? That a superbly designed, full-semester course in science communication doesn’t improve students science communication is nothing short of shocking to me.**** What are we to make of this? One possibility is that science communication can’t be taught because it isn’t a single thing. That’s the most nihilistic reading of the observers-don’t-agree thing from my last paragraph – but unless I really am just as good as Suzuki and deGrasse Tyson and Sagan and Nye, I don’t think we can end up there. The other possibility is that science communication can’t be taught because it’s an innate talent. Now that’s a possibility that will ruffle some feathers, because we really don’t like the idea that some talents aren’t teachable. It just doesn’t seem very egalitarian. Any of us should be capable of being Derek Jeter if we just spend 10,000 hours fielding ground balls at shortstop – or at least, that’s what we want to think.*****
What if there really are unteachable, innate talents, and science communication is one of them? What if Suzuki and deGrasse Tyson and Sagan and Nye are (were) simply gifted? I think one reason we rebel against claims like this is that they seem deterministic: no, you can’t be whatever you want to be, because there may be some things you’re just not good at. That seems limiting to some folks, shutting down avenues for people who should be free to do whatever they want to do. I actually find it the opposite. I’m a horrible artist – I can’t draw a recognizable stick person to save my life. My mother used to tell me that anyone could draw if they just tried hard enough. She apparently thought this would make me feel better. It made me feel much worse: I was failing at something I should be able to do, which meant either I wasn’t trying hard enough (lazy!) or I was trying ineffectually (stupid!). To me, the notion that maybe drawing just isn’t my talent is liberating. It doesn’t mean I can’t draw, if I enjoy it; it does mean I can stop beating myself up over the ugliness of the result.
OK, I got a bit distracted there by my unresolved childhood issues. Back to science communication. If some people are just innately talented, then is the job of SciComm training only to identify and encourage those people and let them build experience? I hope not. I hope the paper is wrong; I want us to produce many more Sagans and Suzukis, because science communication is incredibly important. We desperately need the general public to buy in to science. In the short run, we need them to buy in so they’ll choose to be vaccinated against Covid-19 (and other diseases). In the long run, we need them to buy in so we can maintain and expand the great program that is publicly-funded science as a public-benefiting good.
So I’d like us to train more Sagans and Suzukis, and so I hope Rubega et al. are wrong. I’m 100% certain that they’d like, and hope, the same things.
Image: Bill Nye and his bow tie © Ed Schipul via flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
*^This is very hard to measure. Briefly: each science-communication student was asked to explain the scientific process to a journalism student, and a panel of other scorers rated video of that explanation for clarity, engagingness, and credibility. You might wonder why “the scientific process”, and not an actual piece of scientific content. I wondered that too. You should read the paper.
**^Arguably, I say, because there other possibilities: that the course is effective when measured on longer time scales, that the course would be effective if only the instructors were better, that the particular measurement of communication effectiveness isn’t appropriate, and so on. The authors discuss these with refreshing candour. You should read the paper.
***^Except that the correct answer is clearly Carl Sagan. In which resolute belief I completely undercut my own argument.
****^And it was clearly just as shocking to the authors – you don’t even have to read between the lines to figure that out. You should read the paper.
*****^That we can all agree that 10,000 hours of practice won’t make us all Shaquille O’Neal is irrefutable proof that basketball, as a sport, is intrinsically flawed. Until we move the baskets about 12 feet higher, it simply isn’t possible to be an elite centre without being tall – and that’s just dumb. And now, having terminally offended much of the free world, I return you to your regularly scheduled blog post. (Also, you should read the paper.)