Three monkeys, ten minutes – Scientists and the importance of communication skills

Science and technology have changed almost every aspect of the way we live our lives over the past 100 years, and are at the heart of many major challenges we face today.

Science, however, is nothing more, nor less, than a process by which we seek to understand the forces that shape and control the universe around us, and understanding is not the same as a need (or permission) to act. We can produce fresh water through desalination, or treat waste water (yes, sewage) to the point where it is potable. We can produce genetically modified crops and organisms resistant to disease. Even engineer changes in the system of climate. We know public health would be improved if we banned tobacco. But should we? Do we want to?

How we act on scientific understanding is in essence a social compact between scientists, policy makers, politicians, and the public. At the heart of this is a need that these groups understand one another.

Now, scientists are not so irredeemably bad at the communication game as some stereotypes (such as Scott Adams’ acerbic put-down above) would have us believe. A core part of the scientific process is the need to clearly and persuasively explain ideas to others, and to engage in and foster discussion, testing, and criticism of those ideas. This can take the form of conference and symposium presentations to our peers, tutorial sessions for students, written papers – but however it takes place, an ability to communicate is a key pillar of the scientist’s skill set.

Stephen Hawking is acknowledged as one of the most significant and influential thinkers in late 20th and early 21st century Physics. His mind is capable of soaring on phenomenal flights of mathematical and scientific creativity beyond the realms of thought commonly occupied by many. Were it not for the technological aids that allow him to communicate electronically, however, many of those beautiful theoretical constructions would have remained locked away inside his progressively failing body. A poignant, albeit extreme, variation on George Berkeley’s philosophical construction “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”

All successful scientists, certainly, must either become good communicators, or develop symbiotic relationships with colleagues able to support them in that domain. Fundamentally, brilliant ideas are not enough – if you are not able to clearly and persuasively explain your idea, it will go unremarked – Science will not grow and prosper from your contribution.

Where scientists may sometimes fall down in the communication stakes is an over-specialisation. We invest so much in developing an ability to discuss and exchange ideas at a high level with our peers that the communication of ideas to non-specialists may become neglected.

Unfortunately, nowhere outside of macroeconomic modelling equations do ‘the general population’ actually behave as perfect, rational beings. Society is complex, and people hold views for all manner of reasons – personal, cultural, logical, or religious, among others. We do not have to share those views, but we do need to appreciate and respect their reality if we are serious about influencing policy decisions. It’s not enough to expect the general populace to accept a paternalistic “trust me, I’m a scientist” as a reason for following your advice. It’s also not among the most successful of pick-up lines.

In the words of Jesse Shore, National President of the Australian Science Communicators:

“…few people base their decision making on just being presented with good science. The communicator’s message must have meaning, be useful and acknowledge the needs, aspirations and concerns of each intended audience.”

It is in this context that a Scientist failing to represent their work to the general population becomes significant – a weak link in the nexus required for the hard-won scientific understanding of natural systems to play a significant role in the development of meaningful policy.

Ceding the communications role to the existing media system may not always be a helpful substitute either. Conventional reportage is built not around nuance and weighted discussion, but the manufacture and presentation of conflict and controversy – which is doubly harmful for complex issues. If you don’t understand the methods used or the calculations undertaken to reach a scientific conclusion, taking sides in the debate – or basing a serious policy decision on it – would be like listening to a Frenchman and a German arguing in a third language you yourself have no understanding of (those dashed Europeans can be so clever that way), and concluding “I agree with the French guy because his accent sounds sexier.”

This is why the scientific community should appreciate – even treasure – those scientists and writers able to genuinely translate our work – to explain complex ideas and arguments to others without diluting their meaning. Simon Singh, Robert Winston, the late Carl Sagan…maybe not Simon Winchester, who has a nice turn of phrase, but to my thinking a tendency to undertake diversions off-topic that detract from the flow of thought (for anyone who may have read any of my previous posts, yes, I know – pot, kettle, black) – for these are our ambassadors – our public face.

This is also why we should welcome and encourage the incorporation of communication skills teaching into science degree programmes. This addition has recently become a core element of the new degree structure at the University of Western Australia where I work – not without some controversy among both staff and prospective students. Personally, I have never needed convincing in regards to the importance of training scientists in this area. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that no-one who has ever marked undergraduate essays from science students could ever query that suggestion.

Beyond my self-serving investment in the idea, however, is a more serious foundation. By training future scientists in the skills and strategies of communication – or at the very least making them aware of the significance of this area – we can work to close this gap and see a better informed discussion of scientific subjects in the broader public sphere.

Increasing the fundamental communications skills of our scientific graduate cohort has additional benefits too. This is about more than just making your ideas sound impressive. Learning to structure an essay, or mastering the rhetoric of a compelling argument can in themselves make our students better scientists – providing a mental template for the robust logical interpretation of ideas. You can collect all the data you want, allow your thoughts so roam as wide and soar as high as the limits of infinity, but like an inversion of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it is the act of precisely describing your findings clearly to others that ultimately crystallizes them – pinning them to the page and making them real.

So my fellow scientists, let us value and applaud the communicators in our midst and work together towards a future of better informed, relevant debate of scientific ideas within the social landscape. To take the discussion full-circle then – we might not be able to touch Shakespeare, but at the very least, let’s all try to up our Monkey Quotient a few notches.

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