Communicating Science – More Than Just Good Words?

by Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

On the Brink addresses topics related to data, analytics, and visualizations on personal health and public health research. This column explores current practices in the health arena and how both the data and mathematical sciences have an impact. (The opinions and views represented here are the author’s own and do not reflect any group for which the author has an association.)

Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

Researchers are commonly stereotyped as poor communicators, especially to non-scientific and public audiences. And while it is true that some researchers and university leaders have struggled with effective messaging, it is possible that the fault lies not with word choice or language but in how experts lay out their arguments, which may only make sense to other experts. Many researchers get excited to find their efforts disseminated beyond the realm of peer review and making headlines in more mainstream sources, only to be disheartened when those headlines misinterpret their results or draw conclusions that directly contradict the researchers’ own efforts. While sometimes this happens to create so-called “click bait” (an effort to purposefully draw readers to a public website), there are occasions where the gap is a communication issue between the researchers’ intent and the public dissemination. What if that gap is not because we aren’t using the best words but stems from something else?

This is a common problem across all areas of research; the natural, health, social, environmental, behavioral, mathematical, and data sciences all struggle with dissemination. This seems to be at the heart of an effort spearheaded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has put together a toolkit for engaging with the general public. Most striking from their website is this visual:

Source: AAAS Online

To me, the inverted layout presented here gets at the heart of the communication problem. Researchers are taught to explore hypotheses from a “ground up” approach. Start by presenting the background and the current thinking in a particular area; present a new hypothesis, idea, or approach; and then test that new insight. Conclusions are made at the end when, in effect, we are standing on the shoulders of giants; in this way, science has something in common with the law where decisions are made at the end of hearing a series of evidence-based arguments. What the AAAS graphic shows is that public dissemination flows in the opposite direction where the important information is given first, then the rational for those conclusions, followed by details designed for the most curious of readers. Looking at the triangles side-by-side, it becomes obvious why researchers are often accused of “burying the lead” in their dissemination efforts.

So how can scientists and health researchers bridge this gap? While the toolkit also gives good guidance on dos and don’ts for dissemination, it might be that researchers are looking for more specific training from experts in this area. One area that can definitely help improve communication is to have quality visuals and learn the most effective ways to present data and results in a way that can be digested by many different audiences. Even those who work in analytics sometimes struggle with the best way to convey ideas, even data visualization experts. For researchers who are seeking to up their data visualization chops, I suggest finding a good service such as the Evergreen Data Visualization Academy.  I had some friends go through the course recently, and their feedback was impressive. Evergreen’s approach does not rely on buy-in for any specific commercial software, which makes the focus on what type of visual is best.

What about those individuals with specific software training who can make a pretty picture but need detailed guidance for presenting those results? Here I recommend taking a look at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University for more information and to sign up for workshops on increasing effective communication.

In the era of potential cuts in science and health funding, it is important to make sure that we are being as effective as possible. Of course, education is just as important as dissemination, as this recent article suggests that 7% of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. But in all honesty, I only clicked on that article because of the headline.

Do you have other good resources for disseminating scientific info to general audiences? I would love to hear from you by commenting below or reaching out to me on Twitter via @DrJasonBrinkley.

Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MS, MA is a Senior Researcher and Biostatistician at Abt Associates Inc. where he works on a wide variety of data for health services, policy, and disparities research. He maintains a research affiliation with the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and serves on the executive committee for the NC Chapter of the American Statistical Association and the Southeast SAS Users Group. Follow him on Twitter. [Full Bio]

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