Thursday, May 16, 2013

Extremely bored, or extremely confused? Outreach to scientists and the public

The other day, the president of a large, well-known professional society came to visit UMass. Being me, I was really excited at the opportunity to hear a science celebrity talk about his research, and ducked out of another obligation to go to his presentation.

So I hurried on over and sat more or less front and center, ready to listen to what I hoped to be a fantastic presentation. It began with a nod to old times, old friends in the department, and those awkward inside jokes that, in my (minimal) experience in grad school, tend to precede the boring, lingo-filled, detail-oriented, ego-stroking presentations scientists are well-known for. But I was in the sphere of influence of a real live science celebrity, so I rapidly suppressed these thoughts.

In fact, while the presenter certainly enjoyed stroking his ego (I have decided that the only thing in common between "successful" scientists is making bold (unsupported) statements and giving one's ego the Mason-Pearson treatment), he managed to do an excellent job of avoiding lingo. In fact, although the audience was composed entirely of people well-versed in the speaker's area, the speaker give a nauseatingly simple presentation at a second grade level, which was deeply disappointing. But what was even worse was that he insisted on trying to get the audience to chant phrases like a bunch of preschoolers. Needless to say, I did not participate in this. Of course, I also couldn't slip out of the talk and avoid wasting more of my time, being seated so front and center and all. So I had to sit it out.

And amidst my presentation-induced nausea, I became really, really worried for the future of science. I mean, is this really how societies are representing their members to the public? If so, I am really, really glad I am not a member. If I was a member of the public, and I was spoken to like that, I would be incredibly insulted. It was like he didn't acknowledge that just because not everyone spends their life doing science, it doesn't mean they don't have a brain, or they didn't graduate kindergarten. How will the public ever support funding science with outreach like this. Why are we, as scientists (or scientist in the making in my case), so intent on alternating between extreme high level lingo, and mindless, overly-simplistic and demeaning lessons?

I think that part of the problem is actually because there is this fear that if we use "regular" language when communicating with other scientists, it won't be science anymore. I recently wrote a term paper on a topic I was unfamiliar with, and so tried to convert what I had learned into relatable language rather than just using the meaningless lingo of the papers I cited. The comments my professors made on my draft were focused on how I had used non-sciencey phrases (ie metaphors) to explain conclusions I had drawn from my research in order to try and tie it back to something relatable and well-known. This is not the first time I have received comments on the lack of "scienceyness" of wording in parts of my papers, which bugs me, because I think that science papers - whether for classes or the "literature" - are perfect places to practice bridging the gap between the sphere of professional science and the public, and perhaps somewhat "informal" or "unconventional" language is a great way to do this. While the public may not pick up a paper and understand all the methods, I think that the introduction and last part of the discussion/conclusion should be readable by any well-educated citizen, independent of their discipline. There are of course pushes to do this - PLoS and other journals have both technical and "accessible" abstracts, the USDA website also posts both kinds - but why isn't this the norm? Our funders and stakeholders are the public, so why do scientists speak to one-another in one language and then baby-talk the public? I am obviously not the first person to say this, but at the same time, the Massachusetts taxpayers' dollars paid for that speaker to come and waste at least forty work hours, also on the federal and state taxpayer's dime, and they deserve better. Some grants require reports on data collection and progress on projects, but how often are those outreach section of grants actually followed up on?

On the plus side, it gave me the topic for my first blog post! Let me know if you have found yourself in a similar situation, where someone in your discipline (whether that is research, business, or anything else) has presented to you at an incredibly demeaning level. What fraction of talks you are forced to go to are actually worthwhile? Is lingo a problem of science only, or do you think people in your discipline use words so often they can no longer define them? Have you been to a presentation outside your discipline and been lost and/or bored to death with the simplicity?


  1. I have taken entire courses taught in baby-talk. Part of the issue at my university is attributed to the fact that English is not my professors' native language, but that doesn't excuse them from not treating us like adults! And even scarier, adults with brains! Even worse than never being able to delve into a topic (because most are too sensitive to China...e.g. topics on democracy in China, Cultural Revolution, Island Conflicts, etc...), many professors shy away from questions!!! Sometimes we can't tell if it's because they don't understand our questions, but most of the time I think it's because they avoid giving straight answers. Can't betray the Party now can we?

    We host lectures pretty much bi-weekly from the UN, World Bank, Columbia, this/that other top-notch institution, but it's rare for one to actually stand out. It's always surface-level information we receive, but the list of big names on our department website sure looks good to the public!!! In terms of lingo in my field of development, the problem is not that people use incomprehensible lingo, it's that people are ULTRA-SENSITIVE to lingo...being PC is more important than anything, and consequently, hours of debate are spent on language rather than the issues at hand.

    Basically, grad school in China has been composed of HOURS of meaningless, boring, overly simplistic, condescending, frustrating, propaganda-ing (what is this in verb form??), and incomprehensible lectures.

    As for science lingo, as an extremely non-sciency person I would prefer human-lingo so as to not cause snoring/drooling because drool stains my clothes (and I already have too many)!

    1. Lemony! Are your lectures mandatory? Most of mine are, which is stupid. I would so much rather have people who are known to be good speakers invited, even if their research isn't in my area of interest. Because dynamic speakers engage at all levels. In fact, the reason I am in microbiology now is because one fantastic speaker got me interested in it a couple of years ago.

      But yes - being PC is boring yet mandatory everywhere, because we live in fear of the consequences of not being that way. Funding agencies, governments, institutions...they don't want to risk being associated with comments which might make them unpopular, so they stay conservative. But progress is not made by playing safe.

      But I am glad that scientists haven't bored you with baby talk yet - that gives me a better idea of how to say what I need to.