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Saturday, February 5, 2011

A matter of trust

It could be worse than ‘mildly interested,’ they could be hostile.

On Friday I participated in a workshop on communicating science. As an introduction the teacher outlined the general public’s attitude towards nanotechnology. The sketch painted was of people who are mildly interested in the technology, but aren’t capable of understanding technical material and are very unsure of their knowledge of science. This is the benefit of living in America, where people are generally in favor of new technology, even if they don’t know much about it. Other countries, like Germany, are almost reflexively distrustful of new technology.

The workshop was for researchers who wanted to hone their writing skills, but I crashed it to get some tips for my own communications about science. As a sample of the type of material presented, here is my favorite quote from the day, “never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but never overestimate their knowledge.”

There are a number of reasons that scientists should be at least competent writers, but career advancement is the main one. Most university research is funded through grants, which have an application process involving competing teams writing proposals. Being able to write a proposal that clearly and effectively argues a point is a big part of getting grants. Also, the frequency and quality of a scientists publications determine whether they will get promotions and eventually tenure. Research gains acceptance in the scientific community through publication in peer-reviewed journals. Though the quality of research is the most important factor in getting published, prestigious journals expect a certain standard of writing. Therefore, to get the money to do research, scientists must be able to write effective grant proposals, and to publish their subsequent work, they must be able to clearly write about the results of their research.

My challenge in writing about science is slightly different. The audience a scientist is writing for in grants and academic publications is other people with technical backgrounds, so their task is to describe their research as accurately as possible. In writing for a general audience, I am translating the scientific material into something that is broadly accessible, but still gets the research correct. My goal is to distill the research into something digestible for the reader.

This idea of synthesizing information into usable bits is relevant in a number of areas. We rely on a number of people including lawyers, doctors and accountants to translate complex information so that we can make decisions. Another group who breaks down complex information for a wider audience is journalists. But a different idea for news publication has emerged, and it comes from WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, is advocating what he calls ‘scientific journalism.’ This entails the publishing the background materials used to write a story, along with the story itself. The basic idea is to let the reader have access to the same materials the journalist does, so that they can determine whether the analysis provided by the journalist is accurate.

I’m not going to make a judgement call on WikiLeaks in general, but I do think the idea of scientific journalism is a bit of a waste of time. There is a world of difference between scientific publishing, where the entire data set is available to be analyzed, and journalism. Global events don’t occur in a vacuum, they exist in a complex world where regional differences and history can play a big role.

Just like I trust a lawyer to make a better legal decision for me because he has studied law, I trust a journalist who specializes in financial markets to analyze the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers more than I would trust myself to go over their financial statements and come to a valid conclusion. The world is too complex for everyone to be expert in everything, we need to rely on others to provide information.

Hopefully I won’t have to resort to scientific journalism and I’ll be able to retain my audience’s mild interest without having to publish my supporting materials to retain trustworthiness.

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