Communicate with everyone, not just the media

Helen Czerski, Physicist and Broadcaster

In the past, we could often say “A causes B, which causes C”, and everyone went home happy. But now, the honest answer is often “it’s complicated”, and simple mechanistic explanations hide too much. It’s not that we can’t explain what’s going on, but that an honest rendering of what we know is a journey of many steps, not just one or two.

How should science deal with communicating complexity in an open and transparent way? The answer matters, because as our dependence on complexity increases, so must our trust in the output of systems that we don’t have the time to understand. Science has a huge amount to offer society, but only if society has confidence in what they say and do. Such confidence is built on trust, and to earn it scientists must communicate honestly.  So what should we scientists do?

In my opinion we need to approach trust in the scientific system in a new way, one that is transparent and open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society, but not by inventing a new kind of lofty ideal. It’s simpler than that: this is about conversations. It means scientists taking individual time to talk to others: our neighbours, our Facebook friends, and also the people we might normally shy away from – anyone who is part of the fabric of our society.

And it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening, and responding in a respectful way. We need to put ourselves in places where we’re not comfortable, and let others judge the content for themselves. I’m starting to think that “media training” for scientists often misses the point, because it implies that there’s a difference between talking to an interviewer and talking to anyone else.

What we need is to have confidence that strong positive dignified behaviour (in any and every environment) is what will make the world a better place. If you can do that with your argumentative neighbour, you can surely manage it in a radio interview. The same skills are important: not scoring points but honest evidence-based debate. Demonstrating good behaviour is one of the most powerful ways of instilling confidence in the scientific system. If we can’t convey every nuance of our protocols and analysis, we can at least convey the spirit in which we work.

Helen is a physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster with a passion for science, sport, books, creativity, hot chocolate and investigating the interesting things in life. She currently works in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University College London, and is a science presenter for the BBC. She has also written for the Guardian, and her book “Storm in a Teacup – The Physics of Everyday Life” was published in November 2016.

Image Credit: Alex Brenner

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