Québec's Science & Policy Issues

Know your audience! Marketing science to non-scientists

Picture1I subscribe to Scientific American. I save the Science and Technology sections of the Globe and Mail for last. My ten free reads courtesy of the New York Times are generally science or health related. I have listened to Dr. Oz, and to my supervisor’s dismay, I use Wikipedia.

Although I have unlimited access to scientific journals, I welcome the simplicity and brevity of the aforementioned sources of media. I like the use of umbrella terms, the ease at which they explain complex terms and part of me really enjoys searching for subtle mistakes. Sure, I’m a science student, but that doesn’t mean I need to be bombarded with jargon at all times.

A friend of mine recently shared this article published in The Guardian and suddenly I was embarrassed to admit that layman’s science is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve indulged in the occasional TED Talk and I can attest to the feelings of hope, wonder, optimism, the spiritual buzz if you will. Most TED talks leave me feeling inspired, excited, and educated, but after reading:

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualization: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.”

I began to question the ways we share our discoveries with the world. Are we not only satisfied with but perpetuating a minimal level of understanding from our non-scientist counter parts? Should we be challenging them with jargon specific to our field?

A few days after the Benjamin Bratton article, the curator of TED talks Chris Anderson, published an equally convincing rebuttal. In it he defends TED’s oversimplified, less knowledge more emotion approach.

We certainly don’t think any TED talk offers all there is to know on any topic. Of course not. But you can learn enough to get excited about knowing more. A TED talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can’t be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience.

But understanding the world isn’t just about digging deep. One of the biggest problems of modern intellectual life is that everyone is buried too deeply in their own trench and has little visibility of what is going on elsewhere. Today’s world of knowledge is simply too vast, too intricate for anyone to be at the leading edge in multiple fields.”

While both authors raise valuable points, that last paragraph really resonates with me. We cannot expect everyone to be as receptive to our research as our academic peers. Just as you would never present differential equations to a 3rd grade mathematics class, you wouldn’t discuss that, unlike conventional trophoblast stem cells, Fgf4-induced stem cells from stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells contribute to both embryonic and placental tissues in vivo and transform into ES-like cells when cultured with LIF-containing medium, in the Globe and Mail.

Simplification for the sake of understanding is not a recipe for civilizational disaster; it is merely abiding to the golden rule of any presentation: know your audience.

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