You have to be Smart to be a Science Communicator


Science communicators are smart, and smart is interesting.

I recently interviewed an expert science communicator for my PhD project on science communication and engagement with public audiences. This communicator, who remains anonymous for the purposes of my project, gave me one of my favorite quotes so far, on why science communicators are such interesting people.

"You have to be smart to do it [science communication]. One of the wonderful things about science communication is, if you’re not smart, you can’t do it. There’s a lot of kinds of writing where, you can just be intuitive, or you can just be … make good emotional connections. There are a lot of reporters who are just good at connecting with people, d’you know?

We need to be all of those things as a science reporter, but you have to be smart, there’s no, science takes horsepower, there’s no way around it. That’s the one thing I think that – and I don’t really hear anyone talk about that, and I’ve never even heard myself say it until this minute – but I realize that, I think that’s one of the things that science communicators like about each other so much. They’re either scientists, or they’re people who are really interested in science, and that self-selects for smart. And smart is fun. Smart is interesting. And, ah, smart people change their minds. Smart people learn on the go, right? And that’s exciting to be around, it’s exciting when you change your mind.

You know, I was always for nuclear power, then I realized I’m against it. I’ve been against nuclear power for four years, now I understand what carbon’s doing, and I’m kind of for it again, you know, wow."

I think this is such an insightful thought, and one of the reasons that science communication and dedicated science writers are unique in a lot of ways. Being 'smart' in the communication of science means more than simply understanding physics and chemistry. In my in-depth interviews with them, science communicators often express utmost concern for accuracy in reporting; not just in providing evidence and facts, but in providing enough context so that lay audiences don't misinterpret the findings and implications of the science.

Open-mindedness has also long been a value of scientists, deemed an integral component of scientific attitudes, along with curiosity and objectivity. Being open-minded to new evidence is absolutely essential to objective scientific discovery.

"I tell people all the time, good writing, good thinking, one-to-one ratio. Can’t have one without the other. If it’s well-written, that means the writer knew what he or she was thinking. If it’s, if it’s well thought out, you should be able to write it fairly simply."

It turns out that clear thinking, a valued skill in the sciences, is intimately linked with clear communication, according to my interviewee. Every scientist is a great communicator - they just have to break out of jargon and make complex concepts visual and concrete for the non-science reader.

[This interview excerpt derives from research conducted by Paige Brown].


2 Responses to “You have to be Smart to be a Science Communicator”

  1. K. Buhl Reply | Permalink

    Very good points. I hear researchers say that communication of their work can be delegated to untrained support staff, and I think it's a mistake. I also hear them complain that there's no simple way to explain their work, and I think it's a cop-out.

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      K Buhl, I totally agree. I really can't think of any science that can't be explained simply [unless it's theoretical physics, and even then the best science communicators make that look easy]. If you can't explain it simply, you should have a better handle on what you are doing scientifically.

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