Scicomm Vs the public

04 Mar 2019

Scicomm Vs the public

Yesterday, legendary youtube-based science communicator Kurzgesakt released a video posing the question “Can you trust Kurzgesakt?” – where they critically picked apart how they created their videos and highlighted some of the inherent obstacles of Science Communication.


One of their points really rang true with me – a science communicator with a science background. They lamented that often, people with technical expertise will get upset that the correct word hasn’t quite been used, whilst this has been done to simplify things for the non-expert.


Word up


Scientists spend a long time becoming experts – and with this comes a lot of learning very specific definitions for words, and usually getting told off by a teacher or professor when they use the wrong one.


Let’s try a quick example: what comes to mind when I say “DNA”? If all the knowledge you have on DNA came from what you learned in school before you were 16, you probably know something like “it’s something we all have, that codes things like our eye colour and hair colour.”


If you know a little more, you might know it stands for ‘deoxyribose nucleic acid’. A little more and you might know something about the structure, how our cells read it, etc., etc., etc. all the way up to the world experts on DNA and you know more than anyone else about it.


DNA strand


Know your crowd


What some people forget, is that the first definition there is perfectly valid in the right circumstances. If I tried to float that past my university professor, he’d let out one of his quiet chuckles and a slightly disappointed “no” – but when talking to my mum and dad or my mates in the pub about it, that would be fine!


Similarly, there are a bunch of words that can all mean the same thing to a non-expert: sticking with the DNA example, what comes to mind if I say the words “Genetics”, “DNA Code”, “Nucleotide”, and “Genes”. To a lot of people, these are all vaguely DNA-related words. You might not know all of these words, you might know very precise explanations of each one and could write an essay on each one. With that in mind, read the following sentence:


“Nucleotides are arranged in genes to create a DNA code – this is the basis of genetics.”


Depending on who you say this to, this could be technobabble nonsense or if you’re a real expert you could call it an oversimplification (and I look forward to any emails explaining to me why that is!)


Devil's in the detail


What’s emerging here is actually the basis of most scientific communication – simplifying complex concepts for a non-expert audience can remove some of the detail. This can sometimes lead to confusion. A lot of people don’t know the difference between bacteria and viruses, which has fed into the antibiotic resistance crisis.


Many don’t know the difference between climate change and ‘the hole in the ozone layer’. This has led to people thinking that the fact that the ozone layer was recovering meant that climate change was being averted.


So why do we simplify things? Everyone starts somewhere. Knowledge has to be built on  foundations, and if science communicators just threw a litany of technical words and complex concepts with no context, nobody would get anywhere.


Unfortunately, science worked that way for a very long time, meaning people started to see science as an ivory tower. Thankfully, it seems like we’re rounding a corner in communication, so we can break down some of these barriers.


DNA genes


Rabbit hole


So, for everyone whom I’ve upset by using technical terms too frequently, and for everyone I’ve upset by using them incorrectly, I’m sorry. Science communication is here to inspire and encourage inquiry – so for those of you reading any blog or watching a youtube video and wondering if that’s the complete story, dive down the rabbit hole and find out!


Besides, sometimes being told I used a term “incorrectly” is fun: I once had it explained to me by a plant biologist that a tomato is both a fruit and a vegetable – because ‘fruit’ is a scientific word, but ‘vegetable’ is not. Whether this affects your fruit salad or not, I’ll leave up to you.


Robert Millar