Communicating science to different audiences


Erkki Karvonen

Communicating science to different audiences

There are many kinds of science communication for many audiences.

Science communication operates at many stages and for many different audiences. Intra-specialist communication is communication between specialists in one’s own field, while inter-specialist communication, on the other hand, is communication between experts in different fields, as well as communicating to decision-makers and businesses. Educational communication is part of different types of training and education, and the popular level is communicated in the media to the general public. The further away from intra-specialist communication one goes, the more attention has to be paid to the level of knowledge of the people you are communicating with and their ability to understand specialised language and terminology.

The intra-specialist stage is at the heart of a scientific field

Intra-specialist communication is at the heart of each scientific field, with the experts in a particular specialist area communicating between themselves using accurate specialist terminology, sharing research findings, debating and discussing questions at an equal level with colleagues. In this public sphere, the issue is one of scholarly communication in research publications, conferences and researchers’ seminars. Publication practices vary depending on the scientific field. In some disciplines, the focus is on conference publications, in others international articles, while a third might require enough studies to fill a book in one’s native language.

In intra-specialist communication, the background knowledge and comprehension of the receiving audience needs to be thought about the least of all, as the recipient can be assumed to be as familiar with the field and its concepts as the researcher themselves. This being the case, this communication may be viewed by outsiders as incomprehensible jargon, from which those dedicated to the field nevertheless manage to quickly pick out the essentials. In fact in one test, specialists in the field read texts written in the style of texts in their own area faster than texts written for a popular audience.

At inter-specialist stage experts in different fields communicate with each other

The next level is inter-specialist communication in which specialists in different areas communicate between their expert roles. Participants are experts in their own field and they do not necessarily have a common ground of knowledge or a common specialist vocabulary. Publication in science journals that span several fields, such as Nature and Science, are this type of communication. Communication succeeds when those communicating take their audience into account and sufficiently demonstrate their ideas and make them openly and easily understandable.

The skill of inter-specialist science communication is emphasised in multi-disciplinary research projects, in internal communication at research institutions and in communication with decision-makers and business partners. A good command of communication might also help a Ph.D. engage in other than academic work. Reaching a shared understanding in a multi-disciplinary team is challenging, as those communicating often have thought patterns and speech patterns typical of their discipline embedded through years of study. “Stupid questions” will need to be asked, as what is obvious in one discipline can be utterly unknown in another. Asking the basics is philosophically reasonable, so as to find the rationale for unstated assumptions.

“Stupid questions” will need to be asked, as what is obvious in one discipline can be utterly unknown in another.

Educational communication is “textbook science”

At pedagogical stage, scientific information is communicated to students at different phases of education in lectures, textbooks and other teaching materials. Science education involves socialising new entrants to the field, which means passing on the culture to a new generation by means of a social interaction process. Through this socialisation, an individual becomes a member of a particular community and culture, and adopts thought patterns and habits, values, attitudes, norms and roles.

Pedagogical or educational science communication varies from very popular communication to what is almost communication between expert colleagues and practical exercises. This “textbook science” generally presents views that have already attained established status and have been adopted as the fundamental knowledge of the subject. The intellectual history and the fundamentals of the scientific field are part of the things to be communicated and internalised by the student. Only a proportion of the vast number of scientific publications is filtered into the textbooks. Dialogue between teacher and students has become an ideal of modern teaching. A good teacher explains, demonstrates and teaches things on the basis of the background knowledge and world of experience of their listeners. According to the constructivist view of learning that is generally applied today, learning is active and social action on the part of the student in which the students interprets their observations and new information on the basis of their earlier knowledge, concepts and experience. In this way, the students constantly builds their picture of the world.

Popular communication reaches all citizens

At popular level, communication is to a large audience which is not expected to have specialist knowledge or command a specialist vocabulary. However, these days, laypeople are educated people who, due to their interest, may well be very familiar with the field. Indeed, a top-flight researcher in a narrow field may be a layperson on questions in a different field and need communication designed for a general audience. This is the type of communication that most needs to take into account the audience and amend the communication to the level of knowledge of the target audience. It is essential to stimulate the audience’s interest and important to state what the scientific discovery means for people’s lives. Specialist terms should be avoided, or at least explained. It is better to use active language rather than the passive, and concrete concepts are preferable to abstract ones.

The public is not stupid or uneducated despite being unfamiliar with a specialist area. Nor is the public in a classroom and they can stop reading, listening or watching whenever they like if the message fails to capture and retain their attention. There are many different kinds of popular science communication: public lectures, non-fiction books, columns and articles in the press, blogs, media interviews, radio and television science programmes, documentaries, news programmes, nature nights, science centre and museum exhibitions, or even a presentation at a Science Slam containing short entertaining talks about science.

The further away from intra-specialist communication one goes, the more attention has to be paid to the level of knowledge of the people you are communicating with and their ability to understand specialised language and terminology.

Popular communication reaches all citizens: students, teachers, journalists, specialists in other areas, decision-makers, funders, businesspeople, children and young people – and experts in one’s own field. The latter factor makes many researchers feel embarrassed as they are afraid that research findings communicated in a popular way will seem imprecise and banal in the eyes of their colleagues. However, this fear is generally unfounded. The researcher may instead realise that a colleague on the same corridor or in a neighbouring field is now hearing or understanding what he or she actually does for the first time. Popular publicity also attracts attention to the issue and steers towards sources of more detailed information. This publicity gives research and researchers visibility and recognition in society. Often, the publicity makes the researcher a representative of their entire scientific field.

The attitude of researchers to popular publicity has become more positive. Researchers communicate in a popular way, partly because they want to ensure that the correct information is spread in society and rectify misconceptions. Many kinds of unfounded beliefs are flourishing and competing on the internet with scientific information. Researchers feel it is their duty to tell society about their research findings in return for the funding received. Publicity is also felt to be important in attracting the interest of young people to one’s own scientific field and in recruiting students. Researchers also often cite the fact that publicity can help to attract research funding as a reason for outreach work. Research funding bodies also often require popular science outreach as one element of a successful project.

However, popular science communication by those engaged in science is not given sufficient support at the moment, and nor is it sufficiently recognised. Popular science communication – interacting with and influencing society – is the third task of science institutions at its best. Many science programmes emphasise dialogue between science and civil society, the participation of science in society and, vice versa, the participation of citizens in scientific debate.

Erkki Karvonen, Professor of Information and Communication Studies, University of Oulu

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