If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced for scientists, it’s that we desperately need the general public to understand, or at least accept and respect, what science has to tell us about the way the world works. There are a number of ways that can happen. It can happen through skilled and passionate teachers in K-12 education. It can happen through the work of science journalists (Ed Yong, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer being three superb examples). Or, it can happen through scientists taking on the job themselves, speaking or writing directly to the general public. This last one is science outreach, or as it’s more often called these days, science communication or SciComm. What’s interesting about SciComm is that we (scientists) all seem to think it’s important, and many of us do it – but almost none of us have any training for the job. (Although come to think of it, that describes an awful lot of what we do.)
I’m a great example of this. I do a fair bit of SciComm. Not so much here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, which is more of a science-community blog; but in frequent local media interviews, in a column I write for the newsletter of our local botanic garden, and of course in my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider (I think I may have mentioned this book once or twice).* (Also, I sometimes do SciComm accidentally.) But I’ve never had any formal training – not a degree, not a course, not a workshop, not even a single assignment as part of a more standard disciplinary course.**
It’s because many of us want to do SciComm, and yet lack any preparation for doing it, that I wanted to include more about writing for the general public in the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. That plan didn’t entirely survive its contact with reality – I added some material, but much less than I wanted. I had limited room to expand the text and had to prioritize some other things, and in any case, I’d have been stretching my expertise rather further than I was comfortable with. But fortunately, there are other valuable resources out there. Those who want to pursue SciComm, either as the focus of a career or as a complement to their research and teaching, should take advantage.
I’ll list a few books and other resources here; but the real reason I’m posting this (#OverlyHonestBlogging) is that I hope you’ll supplement my own list by dropping your favourites in the Replies. So, here goes.
- Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (2017). Alda isn’t a scientist, but this book’s rather general approach to SciComm and other forms of communication has a valuable focus on who you’re communicating with. Would we like it if we could just explain stuff and count on the reader to hang on our every word? Sure. Is that a reasonable thing to expect? You know the answer.
- Siri Carpenter (ed), The Craft of Science Writing: Selections from The Open Notebook (2020). This book is really about science journalism, and like Alda’s book most of it isn’t aimed primarily at scientists. But it covers a lot of necessary nuts and bolts for those who might want to do SciComm via mass media, from pitching stories to the language of journalism (what’s a nut graf, again?). It also emphasizes writing pieces that real readers will actually read – which is probably the single most important challenge facing you when you do SciComm. The Open Notebook, by the way, is a free online resource for science journalists that’s much more comprehensive than the bits collected in The Craft of Science Writing.
- Kathleen Jamieson et al., The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (2017). This is a much more academic book, intended for scientists, that digs into the psychology and sociology underlying the difficulty of, and techniques for, SciComm. Its 500 pages cover a lot of ground. If you want to build what you do on a foundation in the science of communication, at least skimming this book should probably be a priority.
- Laura Bowater and Kay Yeoman, Science Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists (2013). More immediately practical than Jamieson, but still harnessing the science of communication and learning for SciComm. This one covers workshops, demonstrations, and other events in addition to written SciComm.
- Sam Illingworth and Grant Allen, Effective Science Communication: A practical guide to surviving as a scientist (2020). This is a somewhat odd book, broader but shallower than the others in that it covers things like grant-writing and scientific publication as well as outreach, dealing with mass media, and strategies for using social media. I’ll admit to not yet having read the SciComm chapters.
- Christie Wilcox et al., Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (2016). This book would be more useful if blogging weren’t, sadly, dying. It’s mostly about the more technical aspects of the blog form in particular, but also tackles evergreen topics like “Persuading the unpersuadable” (Chapter 24, on science deniers and trolls) and the utility of personal storytelling in SciComm (Chapter 11). Long after WordPress has gone the way of AOL, we’ll still need to think about those things.
- Randy Olson, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Second Edition: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (2018) and Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (2015). Reactions to Olson’s books seem to be rather bimodal. Some folks find them revolutionary, while others find them annoying. I’m completely onside with his central claim: SciComm needs narrative. I’m not so taken by his claim that narrative isn’t the same as storytelling, and I think his “And, But, Therefore” summary of good narrative structure feels the strain of being asked to do too much. But it’s pretty hard to deny that Olson has a lot to say, and has had a lot of success with his approach. You don’t have to agree with every word to appreciate having read Olson’s books.
Over to you, now. What have I missed? If you’ve had some success at science communication, what helped you get there? SciComm is too important to be left to each of us blundering through it on our own.
© Stephen Heard October 26, 2021
Image: #SciComm © Ron Mader via flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0
This post is based in part on material in the forthcoming second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, which is scheduled for publication February 1, 2022.
*^Somewhat amusingly, in blurbing Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, Neil Shubin referred to me as “one of our great science storytellers”. This was very kind, but quite a stretch. Neil, however, is one of our great science storytellers and a terrific example of a scientist who has excelled at SciComm. I wonder if Neil has had any more formal training than I have?
**^I guess there’s some irony in the fact that I’ve also never had formal training in scientific writing. You could see that as a reason to question my qualifications to write a book on the topic, but actually, I think it’s the other way around. Precisely because I’m a completely normal scientific writer, without any training but with plenty of weaknesses and hangups, I’m perhaps well positioned to share what a career of doing it has taught me. Or so I tell myself.