Science & Research

Times science writer stresses clarity of ideas

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The ignorance that we exhibit is astonishing,” Cornelia Dean ’69, guest lecturer in environmental studies and writer-in-residence, told a crowd  that nearly filled an auditorium in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts Monday night. Dean was referring to the public’s lack of basic science literacy in a talk entitled “The Scientist as Source.” 

 Dean, a former science editor at the New York Times, geared her talk toward students planning on becoming scientists and engineers, emphasizing the importance of communicating their work clearly and providing them with practical advice.

The country is entering an age filled with key scientific and technical issues, Dean said, citing the controversies surrounding stem cell research, designer babies and battlefield drones. The public needs to engage in discussions about these issues, “but if you don’t know how to talk about them, you’re going to have difficulty having that kind of discussion,” she said.

Dean mentioned the ongoing “hot debate” over evolution and said “the entire scientific and technical community should hang its head in shame that this conversation is even taking place.” The public’s failure to accept such a well-established scientific theory is due in part to scientists’ reluctance to engage with the public and become politically involved, she said. 

Scientists and engineers need to present their work to the public, and they need to do so clearly, Dean said. Many people have negative associations with science because of early classroom experiences in which they were “alternately bored or humiliated,” Dean said. And often when scientists try to communicate their work to non-experts, they sound as if they are mumbling incoherent gibberish evoking that early distaste of science some people experienced in school.

Dean also shared practical tips to help scientists navigate the public sphere.

Every concept can always be explained in simple terms, Dean said. Scientists become attached to the intricate details of their work, but sometimes it’s to their advantage to strip them away when explaining their findings to the public. 

“Practice,” Dean told the scientists in the crowd. 

Dean also emphasized the importance of paying attention to the audience. Notice when the “veil of incomprehension” starts to fall over their eyes, she said, adding a word of caution – “Talk about work in a way that minimizes the chance of misrepresentation.” 

Never say anything “off the record,” advised Dean, who still writes for the Times – just don’t say it at all, because journalists have different ideas of what “off the record” means. Make sure any journalist interviewing you knows how to get back in touch to clarify questions. If there are errors in a story in which you are interviewed, point them out. Call or email journalists who do a good job.

Such practical steps will ultimately benefit the public’s perception and understanding of science, Dean said.

Students who attended the talk largely agreed with Dean’s assertions about the need for scientists to better communicate their work and their ideas.

Adam Scherlis ’15 said he is planning on entering a scientific field and hopes to engage with the public about scientific issues. Dean’s speech gave him some “concrete ideas” for how best to do that, he said.

Alex Durand ’16, a student in Dean’s first-year seminar ENVS 0070D: “The Misuse of Scientific Information in American Life,” said she agreed that scientists need to present their work in a clearer way, but added that the public needs to be better educated so they can understand it. 

“I think it’s a double gap because we as a public are not given the information we need, but we’re also not prepared to synthesize the information,” she said.