Thursday, February 13, 2014

Scientists: When talking to public audiences, do you describe or explain?

As scientists and communicators gather in Chicago this weekend for the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2014 annual meeting, communicating science will be a front-and-center topic. But the place I didn't expect to find a gem about communicating science was in an on-stage interview for On Being with fiction writer Marilynne Robinson and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser. Host Krista Tippett let the two interview subjects ask questions of one another. That's when Robinson put her finger on a subtlety of science communication: The default tendency of researchers to start explaining, rather than describing, their work.

The nuance is an important one from the point of view of the scientist's non-technical or public audience. Often, the explanation follows a curious question, but turns the exchange into a lecture that takes the listener back to the chronological start of the field of study, rather than answer the question. Many of the scientists I've worked with feel they must "educate" even a casual questioner in this way, but that approach doesn't take into account findings, such as this research, which show that "the dominant approach to science communication risks further alienating scientists from the public by placing scientists in the role of teachers." That's why the tactic is on my list of the 7 ineffective habits of scientists who present to public audiences. 

But the novelist and the astrophysicist got at this nuance in a simple, straightforward way, by delineating the difference between describing something and explaining it--and why science can't always really claim to explain as much as it does:
Ms. Robinson: Oh, my. One thing that I find when I'm reading, you know, scientists that write in a popular way, writing these issues and that frankly I've found a couple of times in your book, is a tendency to use the word "explain" when I would say the appropriate word is "describe." You know, if they figure out the fine points of photosynthesis, you know, maybe we'll say, well, it's a quantum phenomenon or something like that, that's a description. It's not an explanation. You know? And perhaps there are things that are not — don't make themselves available to explanation but that does not mean that description stands in the place of explanation. 
And sort of like if somebody says why does a clock tell time, you can describe the mechanism of the particular clock or you can say people arrived at a convenient definition of one day, divided it into arbitrary segments, and made a mechanism that would measure those segments because culture required timekeeping with that degree of precision. Now, that's not a complete explanation but it is explanatory whereas the other one is only descriptive.
And I think that's a very important distinction that is not made because very often when people look at religious accounts of things, people looking at them from the outside, they say, no, that's not an explanation. Actually, the explanation is that it was beneficial to the leopards' existence that it blended into a shadowy landscape — hence, spots. You know what I mean? This is descriptive. It is not explanatory.
Dr. Gleiser: I'm fine with that. [Laughter from audience] 
Dr. Gleiser: I mean, I think that — I don't think I have any claims there. I would say that we are just trying to make sense of physical reality in the best way we can, and perhaps what you are implicitly referring to is the lack of humility that sometimes comes with the scientific kind of rhetoric. You know, that there is sort of this like "this is how it is" kind of thing. And the ones that probably bother you the most are the ones that get the public voice and that do make rhetorical statements about things such as now science can understand the origin of the universe. You know, which is absolutely not true. You know, formally not true. You know, but the statement comes out in the media and in books by very famous people all the time. 
Gleiser rightly points out that it's a combination of how you approach the answer to a question, and how high your need is to sound definitive and authoritative. I work with scientists who hesitate to say "I don't know" in public and media interactions, and I always work hard to dispel the myth that that's a weakness in a researcher. After all, if you could answer all the questions and did so, you'd be out of a job. Scientists, of all professions, should embrace "I don't know" as a fulcrum to introduce into the conversation the idea that research is a search, not the end of the process.

Next time you get a question from someone whose expertise is not your own, ask yourself--or better yet, ask the questioner--"Is this something she wants me to describe or explain?" Descriptive mode might help you avoid sounding like a lecturer, and better meet your public audience's needs at the same time. 
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