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Talking like a scientist

In my old job, part of what I did was take science and translate it into language that got people motivated to demand change. This is a protest to protect the Castle in Southern Alberta.

In my old job, part of what I did was take science and translate it into language that got people motivated to demand change. This is a protest to protect the Castle in Southern Alberta.

For the past five years, it’s been my job to take complicated scientific information and translate it in ways that the average person can understand. I’m very good at it and it’s a skill that I’ve always been proud of. Now, I’m faced with the need to take the ideas in my head and translate them to complicated scientific information to share with other scientists and academics. This has been hard for me this week and it’s made me think a lot about communication.

Translate purpose

When I started this PhD, I really wanted to look at how grizzly bears navigate a landscape around people. How do grizzly bears change their habitat use, if at all, in response to hikers throughout the National Parks. Take that thought and translate to the official goal of my thesis:

To quantify grizzly bear habitat use spatially and temporally in and around hiking trails in the Rocky Mountain National Parks while simultaneously quantifying visitor support for management options.

What’s the difference between those two statements. The science statement uses the word “quantify”, very important in science because it means you are going to measure something. Scientists are all about measuring things and then doing lots of stats on them. The science statement also uses words like spatial and temporal for space and time, they could easily say “space or area” or “time” but they don’t.

Yesterday, I had to present my thesis presentation to my committee. This is a science talk. If you want to watch it, click on the link below. (You’ll have to then download a version of the talk through Quicktime or Windows media player). Fast forward to minute 13 to the start of the presentation; the presentation went on for about 20 minutes and there are questions at the end. I should say that because I am only 5 weeks in some of the details in this presentation may change. I just wanted to put it up here to compare science speak to non-science speak.

This is what scientists do

It’s not just me that sometimes struggles with scientific literature and the standards that scientific writing has to meet. When I first arrived here, one of my supervisors gave me an article called: “How to write consistently boring scientific literature”. It’s by Kaj Sand-Jensen and was published in a scientific journal called Oikos (volume 116: 723-727). All my scientist friends should read this article. It will make you think differently about how you communicate what you do and why.

Although written to be a little humerous, the article brings up some interesting points as it lists the top-10 recommendations to write boring science. A couple of the recommendations that I loved most were to “avoid originality and personality”, and to “suppress humour and flowery language”. While at the same time, another recommendation was to “avoid focus”. So you end up with these scientific articles that are boring (no personality), not that original (because scientists are sometimes to scared to say something new), and aren’t funny. This all means that scientific articles end up being these long, drawn out contributions to knowledge that nobody really wants to read because they ramble and use unnecessarily long words. Even if the paper is sharing something really interesting, earth shattering, and mind-blowing, it will most likely be written in a way that downplays all of that.

But Science isn’t boring

Nobody became a scientist because they thought it was boring. All scientists that I know are so inspired by what they do that if you give them 5 minutes to tell you about it, you’ll see the sparkle in their eye and hear the intonation in their voice as they get more into the subject. What’s more, many scientists are funny. They’re passionate. They’ve got great ideas and are super interesting people to share a coffee with.

But we’re all stuck in this world that says how we communicate that passion has be boring to anybody who isn’t a scientist. It’s a real shame I think.

Being a communicator

It’s so important for people to be able to understand the amazing science that is being done out there in the world. Science is the foundation of how our society learns – everything from how to build a bridge over a river to how to store carbon or how to save an endangered species is science. There are people who are great at translating that scientific literature and giving it the humour and flowery language it needs to appeal to the public, to inspire action in people. I think that is key, otherwise we’re just a bunch of scientists talking to another bunch of scientists. It’s getting the science out there are affects change.

Last week, I had to do a piece on Australian radio about my PhD work. Communicating the purpose of my research in that setting was very different. That radio clip is linked to here. It’s much shorter… and hopefully a little more entertaining:

The piece is one of the blog posts by reporter, Rebecca McLaren. It aired on April 4, 2013 at 6:05pm.

Know your audience

As I go down this path, back into academic science, I will have to communicate my results and research all the time. I’ve been reminded this past week that knowing your audience is the crucial piece. Who are you talking to and how do they expect to be spoken to? What is their current level of knowledge on your subject? How serious are they? The reality is that giving a talk about your work isn’t about you at all, it’s about appealing to the people who are sitting there listening to you. If they are engaged and interested, then you and your work will benefit. If they aren’t, then it doesn’t matter how cool what you do is, you’ve lost your audience before you’ve even started to get to the cool stuff.

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