A couple of days ago, Paige Brown Jarreau, my Scilogs co-blogger (“From the Lab Bench“) and our intrepid, supportive, Scilogs-Community Manager, launched her own crowdfunding project on experiment.com to fund her research work on science communication. It is a worthy effort, and her results will be Open Access, which is an awesome plus. Please do visit her blog as well as the project page to support her endeavor if possible.
Over at Communication Breakdown, my Scilogs-brother and science communicator par excellence Matt Shipman has brought out an interesting post, highlighting the problems in health research coverage by reporters as well as public information officers writing news releases. Matt exhorts these communicators to pay attention to three important concepts: context, limitations, and next steps.
I have had on Twitter a fairly good response to my inaugural ScioLang post. A hearty thank you to all who responded. My post was shared and retweeted several times, and I have been able to find the names of a few more persons who, I think, can contribute meaningfully to this discussion.
Thanks to Jeanne Garbarino, Director of Science Outreach at the Rockefeller University, I have now added to my reading list a new blogsite: The Incubator, hosted by the Rockefeller. It is going to be a home to graduate student and postdoc blogging, and I am looking forward to reading interesting posts in there.
I started off with an essay by Laura Seeholzer on a favorite topic of mine, science communication (a field in which I’d love to work more actively some day…). It begins with a hilarious story about miscommunication because of homophonic terms with vastly different meanings. I don’t want to spoil the surprise; go read the original post. I laughed out loud, causing some consternation in my lab!
I would like to commend Laura for this overall enjoyable and thought-provoking post. The particular problem of science communication that she has highlighted is an important problem which needs a solution post-haste: the problem of jargon in scientific communication, which potentially makes science in general incomprehensible to the lay public, leading to dismal state of affairs in the public understanding of scientific facts.
[I left a comment after Laura’s post, and it is in moderation currently. But since the issue is very interesting to me, I decided to write it down in a blog post of my own, too.]
Let me start by quoting a part of Laura’s post.
Until recently I firmly believed that this problem lay with the public and could be fixed by changing our education system. They lacked “scientific literacy.”
My feelings were supported by a Pew research survey of American adults:
- 46% thought antibiotics kill viruses (They only kill bacteria)
- 54% did not know electrons were smaller than atoms (2,000-450,000 times smaller)
- 48% did not know how stem cells differed from normal cells (stem cells can develop into many types of cell)
However, better education doesn’t fully address the problem: even if we perfectly teach all of modern science in high school, in 20 years, a students’ knowledge becomes outdated. Once this occurs, it becomes difficult to understand cutting-edge research. If you do not understand it, you probably will not find it interesting. The information then floats away and the cycle repeats.
I agree with the general thesis, although she seems not to consider the idea that science education need not stop at school, or need not be compartmentalized in any way at all. It can exist in a continuum. In any case, then she writes: I am now convinced scientists are causing the gap by the way we communicate.
This is where I’d beg to differ with Laura. In this, she seems to have imbibed a great deal of inspiration from a statement of Alan Alda that she has quoted, and I find that statement problematic. Let me explain.
As Alda described, “scientists suffer from the curse of knowledge: we assume ‘the public’ knows more than they do so we communicate in our own language, not theirs.” Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon, which alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation. Journalists try to translate our jibberish (sic) but then we skewer them for “getting it wrong.”
For what it’s worth, in my opinion this is a rather uncharitable and, to some extent, incorrect representation of science communication. First, this dichotomy that he creates, between ‘us’ and the ‘public’, is false – because there is no monolithic ‘us’. Laura mentioned optogenetics as an example in her post. I am a working immunologist and infectious disease researcher, but if one starts throwing optogenetics-specific jargon at me, I would duck and take cover as the strange incantations fly over my head. The responsibility for clear and precise communication of scientific observations is a universal requirement.
However, the characterization that “Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon” is somewhat unfair. Technical jargon is, more often than not, a useful tool to achieve clarity and precision in the communication of scientific data. The contention that jargon “alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation” is rather unidimensional and unfair, too, in that it casts an image of ‘public’ as a monolithic, uncomprehending blob of “I-don’t-get-it” (Think Neo in The Matrix). There is a great need for nuanced understanding in this area.
Three things need to happen in this regard:
- Through science education (at school and continuing), there must be an effort to elevate the lay public’s comfort level with jargon – with the understanding that technical terms often offer clarity and precision to a concept.
- Scientists must be able to (and they need to taught how to, if necessary) choose their intended audience better. The sole goal needs to be better communication and better understanding. They need to eschew jargon wherever non-technical words may suffice, but must not baulk at using them where the concept demands it.
- Whenever jargon is used, scientists must be at pains to explain the concept in lay terms alongwith; this can be facilitated by the provision of resources, such as a glossary, which an interested member of the lay public can use to look up technical terms and their meanings.
The view that “Journalists try to translate our jibberish but then we skewer them for getting it wrong” is not wholly correct, either. The translation of gibberish and getting it right need not be mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of amazing, brilliant and fascinating science journalists to prove that point. The names (in no particular order) that jump to mind easily are Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn Mackenna, Debbie Blum, and others, not to mention working scientists who have taken up blogging, such as GrrlScientist, Emily Willingham, Athene Donald, PZ Myers, Dean Burnett, and so forth.
What scientists (including me) have had a problem with, from time to time, is lazy and incompetent reporting which grossly misrepresents the outcomes of a study or scientific observations. Once again, clarity and precision are very important. The viewpoints on the intersection of science and journalism differ, though. For example, Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chief Online Editor at Nature, one who has been on both sides of the debate, has very specific ideas about how science journalism should work, and he believes in giving the journalist a lot of leeway. Scientists often have a different point of view.
However, I do think that Laura has hit the nail right on the head when she writes:
But we are all busy people, and it makes sense why so few people do this- promotions and interviews depend on how well you communicate your research to your peers, not the public. While funding agencies are starting to incentivize outreach, it is a personal passion to accelerate this movement.
It is not that scientists necessarily fall back upon jargon for communication, but they seldom have the time – after taking care of their academic obligations (read: ‘mad rush to secure funding’) – to engage in explanatory activities for the benefit of the lay public. Incentivizing the outreach, therefore, is a GREAT idea – although it seems to be still at a nascent stage, and must be encouraged.
Ada Ao, a cancer and stem cell biologist, and aspiring science communicator writing for Nature Education‘s SciTable blog, has an interesting post put up today. She cautions that it is a tirade (according to her, of course; pffft!) against a recently-published PLoS Medicine article by Amélie Yavchitz and associates, titled “Misrepresentation of randomized controlled trials in press releases and news coverage: a cohort study” (Yavchitz et al., PLoS Med., 9(9):e1001308, 2012).
NextGen Voices is a feature of the premier science magazine, Science. It is designed as a series of surveys targeted towards young scientists, asking them questions on different aspects of life as a scientist that matters to them.(For some reason, it is not very well publicized, which is a pity – because I do think that NextGen Voices is offering young scientists an important platform to voice their opinions. I got to know about it only because my colleague in the lab, a subscriber to Science, showed it to me. This is partly the reason why I wanted to blog on this today – to raise awareness).
Yes. Yes!! Oh, yes! — This was my reaction while reading a commentary in April 12’s Nature. In a policy commentary article titled Bold strategies for Indian Science (Nature 484, 159-160;12 April 2012), Gautam Desiraju, a professor of Chemistry in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the current president of the International Union of Crystallography, held forth forcefully on what he thought were the bottlenecks that seem to be holding back the progress of Indian science. I found much to agree with.
Another post after a brief hiatus because of work-related pressure. I’m sure nobody missed me, though. [Sniff!] Well, the pressure’s still on, but let’s say I was inspired to write this post by a chance occurrence, a question asked by a physician friend of mine. An accomplished and established surgeon in India, he is considering various possibilities and options, having recently learnt that his young son is desirous of coming to the US to pursue a career in biological research.
He asked me: how is life as a scientist in biological sciences or genetics etc? Very tough, boring life that leaves you no time? Or fulfilling and all that?
You could hear from a mile the sound of my mental machinery creaking and groaning and whirring. Naturally, I’d be delighted to welcome a budding scientist to the fold, but I also wanted to provide my friend with as true and complete a picture as I possibly could.
Shying away from the usual spiel on the quality of scientific research done at noted US universities and institutions of renown (my friend is aware of all that), I focused on the core of his question – the life as a scientist. What exactly is life as a scientist? Is it, like, life in all its glories as presented with a sonorous narration in a Discovery Channel documentary, or is it more of life, as in “Dude! Get a life!“? Does life of the latter kind come to the scientists in the manner of the proverbial Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland, appearing suddenly with a mischievous grin and then vanishing slowly and unattainably until nothing but the grin is left, and then –Poof!– that is gone, too?
Pushing aside these philosophical (and ultimately useless) cogitations, I set to writing him a reply. Here’s a part of what I wrote:
There are several angles to this question, all of which – in the final synthesis – boil down to the matter of temperament.
First, as with every other profession, the rewards of a career in science are not consistent – and indeed, may even be considered insignificant under certain lights. There will be work-related irritation, frustration, aggravation and denial, some of which may even spill into one’s personal life if one cannot carefully separate the personal from the professional.
Secondly, even if one is passionate about the work to begin with, it would be difficult to sustain that same level of passion through the years. However, professional scientists can usually keep their interest aflame by diversifying into multiple research questions and/or refocusing their priorities.
Thirdly, life as a young researcher may be impecunious. One simply doesn’t become a scientist if one’s goal in life is to become a millionaire outright. I admit that in rare moments of self-doubt, I have thought about young adult basket-ball players and other athletes (especially the talented Jeremy Lin in recent times), who seem to command an exorbitant amount of money in exchange for their prowess and agility, whereas we, the science researchers in the same country, despite contributing day in and day out towards the betterment and progress of humanity, are doomed to live in relative penury.
To the discerning mind, however, the rewards are manifold, even though they may not readily translate to wads of greenbacks or pots of gold. Fulfillment is often a matter of perception, after all.
To many scientists, there is an element of thrill-seeking in what they do. Understanding a problem, analyzing it, putting forth a rational hypothesis and then performing rigorous experiments to test its validity, anticipation of the results, the joy that one feels when the observed data vindicate one’s hypothesis or the sobering effect when they don’t and push the scientist back to the drawing board – there is a lot of drama, excitement, emotional upheavals therein that can be quite enjoyable overall.
There are many scientists who find the challenge of an intractable problem very attractive and engrossing. To them, the systematic attempts at puzzle-solving, especially if the problem happens to be multi-layered, are themselves fulfilling; if they do manage to unravel the mystery, it can be very rewarding, sometimes even lucrative.
Many scientists, especially those working upon problems of immediate consequences to, say, the health and well-being of living beings, including their fellow humans, are often fortunate enough to observe the benefits of their work in relatively real-time. It can be incredibly fulfilling as well as humbling. On the other hand, even those scientists, whose professional endeavors are distally related to health, and more proximally, to basic and/or applied problems in biology, have the satisfaction of knowing that their work connects them to a larger continuum, because modern living organisms, having evolved from same or similar ancestors at different levels, often share a surprising degree of relatedness.
In addition, the sharing and communication of one’s research outcomes within the scientific community and without is no less gratifying. Having one’s work accepted for publication in a scientific journal of repute can be quite life-affirming. Recognition and renown for one’s work, when they eventually arrive, ain’t too shabby either. Accomplished scientists often wish to spread or share their experience and life’s journey, thereby hoping to influence younger minds and instilling the spirit of enquiry.
Many of these intellectual rewards or fulfillment that I mentioned above may initially seem too esoteric and far-fetched, but they exist – they require a fair bit of hard work, but they are not unattainable goals. This is important to understand, especially for a new graduate student.
The entire period of graduate studies (leading to a PhD degree) is – as I see it – essentially a period of training. One learns not only technical skills of various sorts, one also learns how to integrate one’s knowledge in one’s work. One grasps the value of perspectives – how to view one’s own work in the context of a larger picture. One picks up valuable people skills, skills of interaction, communication, presentation and the art of networking, as well as how to work cohesively in a group setting and independently at the same time. One assimilates the ways and means of effective time management, and the benefits thereof. Most importantly, under competent mentorship, one gets a thorough grounding in the scientific method.
To me, this is the most crucial aspect of training as, and being, a scientist. A scientist is much more than what one does; it refers to what one is. It is possible to integrate in one’s life, or one’s attitude towards life, the basic tenets of the scientific method, objectivity, reliance on empirical evidence, a rational and skeptical outlook, and an ability to question, observe and analyze, to varying degrees. People who successfully do that are also able to effortlessly transition from their workbench to life outside and back.
As far as having ‘time’ to do other things is concerned, I have found that it largely depends on the individual. It is indeed possible to manage one’s time effectively, so as to be able to pursue other interests. Examples abound. Just to randomly name a few instances, Paul Z Myers is an accomplished and popular biology professor, with a tremendously celebrated blog. Stephen Curry is a noted structural biologist who still finds time to blog and write for the Guardian. Russian composer Alexander Borodin was a life-long and distinguished researcher in organic chemistry. Jennifer Rohn is a working cell biologist who is a champion for the genre of “Lab-Lit”, is an author, as well as finds time for political advocacy for science funding in the UK. Canadian physicist Diane Nalini de Kerckhove combines a career as a successful scientist with her job as a professional jazz singer. As I said right at the beginning, it is a matter of temperament. If one loves what one does, one does it well – no matter what – and garners fulfillment from it.
What do you think, gentle readers? Please throw in your comments, suggestions, bouquets and brickbats in the comment section.
Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, has written a book titled Geek Nation in which she makes a case for the rise of India as a scientific superpower despite the overwhelming influence of religion in the Indian society. I’d love to read the book. It will be published tomorrow, on March 3, 2011 in the UK; I don’t know when it’d be available in the US, but soon, I hope.
In the first part of this two part post inspired by science-journalist and author Angela Saini’s write-ups on the topic of science and superstition in India, I explained my views on the real problem plaguing science education in India. In this second part, I look more closely at Angela’s writings.
One of the more controversial themes in Geek Nation is the impact that the rise of science and technology is having on superstition and faith in India (which is, after all, said to be the most religious place in the world).
This happens to be an issue that has, frankly, troubled me for a long time. Angela offered a sorta-kinda justification in her post:
The ideas we’re instilled with as kids are far more difficult to abandon when we grow older than some rationalists would like to think they are. And of course I know lots of intelligent, rational people who cling to faith (and many more who read their horoscopes)… for many, it’s comforting and reassuring.
This immediately dredged up memories of my having grown up in India, images of people I have been around and situations I have been in: (a) the frequent practice of choosing an ‘auspicious’ time and place of a scientific convention (meeting, congress, conference) based on astrology or some other personally favorite superstition; (b) the invoking of gods and goddesses for blessings prior to the commencement of scientific symposia; © working scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, sporting on ten fingers ten rings set with precious or semi-precious stones, all designed either to curry favor with some astrological planet or star, or to ward off the evil influences thereof; (d) biochemists and molecular biologists devoutly praying for a favorable outcome of their PCR runs; … the list can go on and on. This regrettable behavior on part of scientists is the sign of a greater malaise: Irrationality of any kind leaves our minds open for further irrationality. For that very reason, merely because a superstition appears ‘comforting and reassuring’, that cannot/shouldn’t be reason enough for embracing it wholeheartedly.
I have listed my views on the topic. I am, unfortunately, not aware if Angela is a scientist by training or not (Her Blogger profile mentions her industry as ‘Communications or Media’). If she is not, it’d certainly be refreshing to get a perspective from a non-scientist on the strange, and strangely easy, coexistence of science and superstitions in India – all the more reason to wait eagerly for the book.
Pending the arrival of the book, I turned to the column that Angela has written for the New Humanist, titled the same as her blog post, “The god confusion”, in order to get a feel of what was to come in the book. It is well-written and insightful. Angela’s conversational style is a pleasure to read. She has explored the situation from a personal as well as historical perspective, noting past efforts at injecting rationality into the Indian societal mores. She has examined a couple of the reasons why the juxtaposition of science and superstition seems to have endured in the Indian psyche, such as high levels of adult illiteracy and the apparent fluidity of Hinduism (which is the predominant religion in India). She has questioned the foundations of a so-called spiritual resurgence among India’s urban or semi-urban, educated youth.
But there is also something oddly wrong and out of sync in her piece. It is almost as if the confusion she underscores in her article is not the confusion that the Indian people appear to face in having to choose between science and irrationality; it is rather a confusion that is her own, as if reflecting her own ambivalence about the relative place of science and religion in her life – perhaps borne out of the confusion of ideas from her childhood, the invisible-yet-present struggle between her unashamedly geeky, rational and skeptical father and horoscope-wielding mother (judging from her own words).
In odd places in Angela’s otherwise interesting account, a strange credulity, a desire to look at the Indian science situation through rose-tinted glasses, has shone through – evident in the facile ease with which she refuses to acknowledge what her inner rationalist says. When she passed by the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi, a sprawling religious edifice purportedly for showcasing “the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages”, the rationalist in Angela did note that “In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith”, and yet she is “impressed” by the motivations of the people who built the place. Is it really that hard to imagine how many poor, hungry people could have been fed and clothed, how many little girls given the light of education, how many endeavors – towards empowerment of women, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized – financed through the amount of money and/or effort spent on building an edifice that does nothing but look pretty and rehash some perennially ineffectual words?
Towards the end of the article, Angela also whimpers about how difficult it is to let go of religion in India. Don’t get me wrong. Her observation is astute when she notes:
In India that struggle is multiplied because the culture is so dominated by it. Beliefs are burned into the minds of children – Hindus often keep shrines at home, pray daily and have their fates decided by their horoscopes at birth. It’s common to appeal to the gods to guide you in your choices and to give you luck. Not only this, superstition and religion are big business: astrologers have their own television programmes (sic); homeopathic drugs and traditional medicines are sold in the millions; and fashionable gurus attract stadia full of fat-walleted worshippers. Ditching god isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by an infrastructure built on belief.
(It may be difficult, Angela, but it is not impossible. I have done it and freed myself from the shackles of religion. It is an unbelievably liberating feeling.)
However, it is important to understand that unless Indians grow up as a nation, unless the unholy reliance on faith and superstitions is burnt at the altar of reason and sanity (the religious imagery of this allegory seems oddly appropriate here!!), unless rationality and skepticism is made the mainstay of the basic education, including science education, the nation can never grow, prosper and thrive intellectually – no matter how ‘desperately religious’ modern, so-called educated Indians try to rationalize their transcendental bond with faith and superstitions, no matter how much they attempt to reconcile scientific facts with fundamentally incompatible religious stories.
But perhaps Angela’s problem – despite her obvious understanding of the crux of the situation – has a different root. She epitomizes it when she engages in a rather disappointing, spacious, strawman-beating statement in her blog post, where she says:
“Unlike some scientists and radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’m actually quite sympathetic to the emotional reasons behind religious belief.”
Yes, the sympathy. Angela’s article’s title The god confusion may possibly be a play on Dawkins’ The god delusion, but the former ain’t nothing like the latter. Nowhere has Richard indicated that he is not sympathetic to the emotions associated with religious belief in people; in fact, in The God Delusion, he has dedicated chapter after chapter towards understanding the basis of religious belief, of faith.
But Angela’s ‘sympathy’ towards the faithful – likely stemming from her own internal confusion – seems to have effectively blinded her towards the fact that rational atheists object to the religious beliefs, myths and superstitions per se, and not to the individuals holding those beliefs – until and unless those beliefs lead to harm and injury to others (and they do; there is enough evidence of that in the real world – but that’s a topic for another day).