Putting Science in Plain English

By Sean Cavanagh — November 04, 2009 2 min read
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Many scientists have a lot to say. Unfortunately, a large swath of the public at large has trouble understanding what it is they’re talking about.

This is a problem, many scientists agree, not just because important scientific facts and ideas are misunderstood, or because those topics end up getting ignored in the public sphere. The language barrier also makes it difficult for the public, including K-12 students, to grasp why science is important at all, and how it affects their lives.

In reporting a story recently, I was directed to an online resource that seeks to help scientists overcome these barriers. It’s called “Communicating Science: Tools for Scientists and Engineers,” and it’s run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world.

The site, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, includes how-to tips for scientists to conduct interviews. It also houses online “webinars,” ideas for coming up with public outreach opportunities, and a list of workshops to help scientists. For members of the working media, looking at these resources often has the added benefit of cluing us in to how the rest of humanity regards us (in some cases with fear and suspicion). But on the AAAS site, the authors try to anticipate scientists’ struggles to explain their work to reporters and offer them practical tips. Here’s a sample from the site:

“The phone rings, you answer. It’s a reporter from the New York Times. She quickly explains that she’s writing a story under deadline and another scientist she spoke to gave her your name. What should you do?

1. Hang up in fear.
2. Ask what the story is about and the deadline, and then arrange with the reporter a better time to talk, keeping in mind his or her deadline.
3. Say ‘sure,’ answer her first question, and then discuss in great detail your most recent published discovery for the next 30 minutes, interrupting the rest of the reporter’s questions.”

The correct answer, the site explains, is #2. This approach will give the scientist time to think through how he or she plans to explain a topic, the authors say. Other, more detailed advice for interviews is also included.

I often hear scientists talk about how difficult it is to explain the rules and language of science to lay audiences. Their frustration level was especially high during the spate of fights over evolution and intelligent design in schools a few years ago, when many scientific experts sought to describe the kinds of questions science can answer, and those that it can’t. If you’re a K-12 teacher or student, what tips could you give scientists on how they can explain their work in clear and lively terms?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.