Written by Katharine Beca (Tooke)
Katharine Beca (Tooke) is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the UVM Larner College of Medicine and UVM Neuroscience Graduate Program. She currently works in the Vizzard Lab, under the tutelage of professor of neurological sciences Margaret Vizzard, Ph.D., contributing to research regarding the neural mechanisms involved in urinary bladder function and dysfunction. After earning her degree, Beca is interested in pursuing a career in scientific communication.
Last year, the science journal Nature published an article titled “Words Matter: Jargon Alienates Readers.” In it, writer Chris Woolston cites a study in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, which found that “Overly technical language in science articles doesn’t just muddy the waters for non-experts — it can alienate readers, potentially shutting them out from scientific discussion and knowledge.”
If you haven’t read Woolston’s article or the study, I encourage you to do so.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at a recent tweet from the Nature Twitter account.
The research mentioned – “ab initio calculations in quantum chromodynamics and quantum electrodynamics for the estimation of the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon, reducing the tension with a recent experiment,” – and accompanying graphic tweeted by Nature, could be the most important discovery of the year – but no one outside of the field of quantum physics would ever know!
This is just one example of why science communication is so valuable…and incredibly challenging.
Marcia McNutt, the editor for Science, says it best,“Even the most brilliant scientific discovery, if not communicated widely and accurately, is of little value.”
Effective science communication needs to clearly communicate three important things:
- What is the research?
- Why is the research important?
- What are the limitations of the research?
This clear communication of scientific research benefits both the scientific community and the public.
Science is interdisciplinary; important findings typically involve a combination of several fields coming together. Think of the intersection of artificial intelligence and neuroscience: Machine learning is becoming increasingly important to findings within the field of neuroscience and science communication is an important driver of this collaboration. Alternatively, science communication is imperative when introducing innovative and novel research to audiences without a science background. Proper communication of science is what yields comprehensive and robust science policy that impacts public health and plays a role in funding allocations for future research.
If you think of science communication like a pipeline, there are many ways that information gets lost when going from the lab bench to the public. This seems obvious, especially living through the COVID-19 pandemic – which the World Health Organization has referred to as an “infodemic.”
In my opinion, there are three main pitfalls that contribute to leaks in the science communication pipeline:
1) Jargon used by scientists
Look at the tweet from Nature above.
Of course, with complex science (like quantum theory), there is a time and a place to convey detailed and technical information; however, there needs to be a balance. Unsurprisingly, research shows that when people read content littered with jargon and obscure acronyms, they show a disinterest in science compared to people who read content using less jargon.
Jargon often repels people – causing them to feel like the “outsiders” of the “science club.” Likewise, it can even make fellow scientists feel alienated (hello, imposter syndrome) and as mentioned above, it can stop important collaborations from forming.
If these reasons alone aren’t enough to convince you not to use jargon, or, at the very least, to limit your use of it or include explanations when these terms appear in your research, consider this – research also shows that papers with “jargon-heavy” titles and abstracts are cited much less than those with more accessible terminology (though this was specifically a study conducted looking at papers related to cave research, the authors believe the results are relevant to other scientific fields).
2) Sensationalized headlines & “clickbait”
Catchy headlines can distort reality.
Although sensationalized headlines often arise from the desire to entertain and appeal to a wide audience to achieve impressions, views, and interactions at other times, their origins are less honest, such as when they knowingly misrepresent results of a scientific study. Whether intentional or not, using a title that misrepresents reality can cause an emotional response from the reader – unwarranted fear or hope – that can have deleterious effects when it occurs tens to hundreds of times over the course of the day.
Think about how many people scroll through social media and only read the headline of an article or the 280 characters associated with a tweet before moving on. It’s easy to understand why providing accurate titles and summaries of scientific articles is so important. Reporting on studies without discussing their limitations and factual conclusions can lead readers to feel as though scientists are preemptively “crying wolf” with their findings.
In the current era of “fake news” and “infodemics,” science can be a reputable way to counteract the misinformation. However, more needs to be done to ensure science reporting is honest and credible.
3) Implicit and explicit biases of the population
Everyone’s personal experiences, to some extent, inform their bias to scientific findings. Everyone knows someone who says, “I’m sure those scientists know what they’re talking about, but my great-aunt has smoked for 62 years, and she never got lung cancer!” This anecdotal evidence is typically the exception rather than the rule, but it is always tempting to believe something that you have seen first-hand rather than a large study you do not feel connected to.
This is why it’s so important for science communicators to recognize that implicit and explicit biases exist and discuss the differences between conclusions drawn using the scientific method versus conclusions made through anecdotal evidence. For instance, when compared to anecdotal evidence, scientific evidence is usually unbiased, less emotional, has a larger sample size, is well-controlled, and shows a causal connection rather than a correlational one.
As scientists, educators, clinicians, and members of the public, we all have a role to play in the proper communication of science. By being aware of factors that contribute to leaks in the pipeline, we can do our part to address them quickly and efficiently. By improving science communication, we can have a profound impact on public health as well as the science and health policy landscapes.