The year is 2019, and the way humans communicate with each other has drastically changed. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media applications have taken over our lives; some people spend hours looking at their cellphones and seconds looking into another person’s eyes. You can immediately call and talk with someone on the other side of the world, and my family in Brazil is extremely thankful for that. Information is always there when we seek it, but the amount we receive every day is massive and not always accurate.
Now that easier and faster ways of communicating with other people during our rushed lifestyles have been established, can we apply that to science? Are we seeking more accessible ways to communicate our science to others and do we make it a priority?
As a graduate student in the second year of doctoral studies, my humble and sincere opinion is that we still have a long way to go. Countless times I have seen scientific talks and read scientific papers where I could not understand (at all!) what the person’s research was about and why it was worth doing. I blamed myself, for various “English is not my first language” reasons; nevertheless, my friends who had grown up speaking English have exactly the same problem. What is missing in these cases, and how can we avoid being that person who has a very relevant idea and cannot explain it to others?
I believe the first and most important step relies on a change of the conventional scientific mindset. I often encounter people in scientific fields who associate intelligence with the use of an elaborate vocabulary. They are convinced they will look smarter, even feel smarter, if they use specific, long, and complicated words when talking about their work. Less is more, however; the difference between being understood, misunderstood — or not understood at all — lies with simplicity.
Simplicity? That would suggest we are not moving forward, right? Well, no! In the complex and complicated world we now inhabit, people are looking for what is straightforward, true, and sincere. Simplicity has become the ultimate sophistication.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein
I know it is hard to change things that have become so well-defined in our heads for so long, but this is the beauty of working on the communication aspect of our lives. The other important step in improving the situation is changing the way we see communication in science, which is usually defined as a “waste of time”. The sad truth is that the act of sending an understandable and therefore impactful message is not acknowledged as it should be. Individuals who remain completely focused on their research, who may have social and communication skill, will still find themselves presented with more professional opportunities than someone who makes the effort explain something like what an atom is, what it looks like, and what it does.
This lack of recognition is a major reason why scientists may be less inclined to improve and upgrade their communication skills, not to mention the common complaints about the time it would take. “We already have so much to do! So many reactions to perform, so much data to analyze, so many presentations to create, so many problems to solve!” As true at that may be, successfully completing these tasks will not help someone who knows nothing about your research, which is why you must take that precious time to make your ideas and research outcomes clearer and potentially interactive.
Nor are you doing this for yourself — you are doing this for others! Yes, you are stopping your reactions long enough to explain what is going on. You are turning your gigantic table of experiments into two or three simple schemes. You are postponing data collection so you can talk about what all of those values mean. It might seem like you are going backwards, but your effort could be extremely powerful in so many ways we cannot even imagine: for an 18-year-old girl in your audience who has not decided if she will become a dentist or a chemist; for a 24-year-old chemistry student who never understood instrument calibration and is in your analytical chemistry talk; for your neighbour who hates chemistry and thinks all we do is poison and pollute.
To me, the importance of communication in science — and in our lives generally — involves much more than choosing the right words, improving presentations, using real-life examples, and rephrasing well-established definitions. It is about connection and empathy. It is about putting yourself in the place of other people and making sure they have experiences that you would like to have and are treated in a way you would like to be treated. It is about collapsing bias, inspiring others to do better, and changing people’s perspectives.
The uncertain path ahead depends on significant changes in the scientific mindset and culture. However, if we start realizing and understanding the influence and effects of communicating our science effectively, and if we start thinking outside the lonely and selfish shell of our own lab, we have the power to transform not only ourselves, but the way science is currently seen worldwide.