Monday, 5 September 2016

Meeting in the Middle: Making complex concepts comprehensible.


I'm not going to lie: Science can be hard to understand.

There's a reason you need at least four years of intense study at university before you can call yourself a scientist. There's a lot to take in, many concepts to understand, and much to remember. It can be challenging. But for those of us with an innate fascination with the workings of the world, science is a joy! So it's not really hard work. More like a labour of love.

On the other hand, science is just one discipline among many, and not everyone is interested in being a scientist. Which is fine. The world would be pretty darn boring without the artists and writers and musicians; and trust me, we'd probably go broke or forget to eat if scientists were in charge of the money.

Science is everywhere, but not everyone is a scientist.

Science and technology underpins--makes possible--modern society; we really don't have a choice but to be engaged in science and technical matters in some way.

  • Many people (in Australia, all working people), for instance, have superannuation accounts whose fund managers invest their money in companies that perform some kind of scientific work. 
  • All of us come across scientific content in the news; be it a story about a bionic ear, or a story about vaccinations, its there; all the time. 
  • Some of us are just interested in understanding how something new works. Be it the latest in VR, or a new biotech company with something revolutionary. 

You don't have time to quickly grab a science degree though, so you rely on the writer/presenter/company executive to give you information that you can understand.

Complexity: the enigmatic enemy.

If you can't understand something, you won't remember it. If you don't remember it, you won't act on it.

It's that simple.

For most of us, that's as far as it goes. It's a shame, but it's OK.

For a company trying to sell its new wonder-product or technology though, that lack of public understanding is nothing short of a disaster. Smart people don't invest in stuff they don't understand.

So companies with scientific (or just technically challenging) ideas to convey simply must ensure their public communications are comprehensible to the public or else they are staring down the barrel of irrelevance; no matter how well run the company is, nor how good their product is.

Tell us all! Tell us all!

In a kind of reversal of the same message, a slightly different principle applies to science media/journalism.

Whereas the science company might be full of science knowledge but lacking in the communications department; the science reporter might be a great communicator, but not have enough scientific understanding to convey science news properly.

Great science reporting leaves very little out - the details and the science remain, but in understandable language. To retain the science content though, the reporter needs to grasp the science first so that he or she knows what to say.

Wait, so how do people do both?

I thought you'd never ask. It's straightforward - this mid-point between scientists and the general public has specialists of its own - science communicators. We act as translators and interpreters. We make it possible for the great work of science to be understood, and therefore supported (financially, legally, politically) by people outside the scientific community.

The problem is not going to get better with time - in fact it will probably get worse. Technology and science is advancing at such a pace it may one day outstrip humankind's capacity for understanding. But in the meantime, it's better to have your amazing whiz-bang thingamawhatsit portrayed to the public in a digestible way.

If you, or anyone you know, needs help with science communication, please contact us for advice.

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