08/19/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

The Science of Communicating Science

A scientist and a layperson enter a bar... Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? However, if there is to be a punch line, those two must be able to talk with each other -- in other words, communicate. Or not -- in the case of a joke, not communicating might actually be a good option. However, in real life, communication ranks among the top necessities of humans, as evidenced by early drawings depicting life scenes, the development of oh-so-many languages and dialects, visual arts, and so forth. We need to communicate with family, friends, partners, clients, and the person checking out our groceries (unless we use one of those darned machines, which get us frustrated and make us wish we could -- yes -- communicate with them!). And we need to communicate at a larger scale, about issues that matter to us: finances, cost of living, jobs, education, and the weather. To patch together our daily lives, we are constantly communicating, even if we don't give it a second thought.

But communication is a two-way route. It entails one side giving the information, and the other side reacting to the information -- the minimum form of which being the understanding of the message, and acknowledging so. If communication fails to fulfill this two-way purpose, because the message doesn't get through to the receptor, then something gets amiss, and the message gets ignored, distorted, or misunderstood, even as it is being passed on. Science is among the fields where this failure to communicate is noticeably commonplace, and the burden is usually on the messenger (aka the scientist). If the latter does not tailor the message according to the intended audience, there is a glitch in communication, because basically people will only understand what makes sense to them.

The issue of communication (or lack thereof) between scientists and the general public is not new. Scientists have been accused of being geeky and speaking in terms that the general public cannot understand. Many articles have been written on how the public feels alienated and yes, even stupid, when it comes to scientific matters. The unfortunate result of this is that many people prefer to ignore important scientific issues completely, because they cannot form an educated opinion.

According to Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker and author of the book Don't be Such a Scientist, the main problem with scientists is that they usually aim straight for the brain of their audience, as opposed to their heart or guts, and yes, even sex organs (more on that in his book and here). They come up with various facts, statistics, and logic arguments, but neglect to engage their audience or to elicit some sort of response (emotional, guttural, sexual). How can you get the audience to relate if you don't get them to respond? This shortcoming is cleverly shown in his mocku/documentary Sizzle, where he tries to find the truth about climate change and global warming from top scientists.

The field of climate change is a particularly difficult one in which to communicate with the public because of the associated uncertainty (an inherent characteristic of most science) and the complexity and scale of the issues. Fortunately (for all of us, scientists and general public) there is hope. Just this past week, a few climate scientists gathered to discuss better ways to communicate science in more clear and unbiased ways. Interestingly, they will not be talking directly about climate science, but rather will use a climate-related case study to defend, attack, analyze, and discuss various opposing opinions. The means for those discussions are mock court and congressional hearings, depositions, and press conferences. The focus, according to conference organizer Professor John Sonsteng of William Mitchell Law School, is not on advocating for either side, but on justifying the science. That strategy will hopefully lead to better ways to lay down the facts in a manner that is understandable for the layperson.

So maybe someday, in a perfect and hopefully not too warm world, everyone will have a better understanding of science in general, of climate, and of how important those are to our everyday lives.