Matt Shipman is a public information officer at North Carolina State University, where he writes about everything from forensic entomology to computer malware. He previously worked as a reporter and editor in the Washington, D.C. area for Inside EPA, Water Policy Report and Risk Policy Report, where he covered the nexus of science, politics and policy. He blogs about NC State research at The Abstract, and you can follow him on Twitter where he is @ShipLives.
Explaining the nuances of scientific research to a lay audience has never been easy. Changes in the news media landscape over the past 20 years have created new challenges. The 24-hour news cycle, for example, offers little opportunity for reflective reporting on complex issues. However, there are still steps that scientists can take to communicate effectively about their work. Matt, in his Soapbox Science series, The Promise & Pitfalls of Public Outreach, has already discussed what Scientists, Science Writers and PIOs Should Expect From Each Other . In his next instalment Matt talks about being a science journalist with no scientific background, offering advice for all parties. Do stay tuned for Matt’s final post published next month.
Many scientists find it frustrating to work with science writers who have little or no background in their specific fields of expertise. It can be slow going, explaining every little thing – and there is always the fear that the writer will get it completely wrong. But working with a non-expert can have its advantages. Here’s why scientists should give non-experts a chance – and what non-experts should consider when writing about science.
Full disclosure: I am a science writer who is not a scientist. I’ve been interested in science since I was a kid (I wanted to be a marine biologist). But thanks to a seemingly irredeemable conflict with chemistry, I ended up an English major. I went on to work as a reporter covering federal environmental policy issues, and often had to explain the research behind regulatory decisions. Much of this research was done by chemists. To my surprise, I found out that I was really good at describing their research to non-chemists and explaining why it was relevant. Chemistry was my bête noire, so how could this be?
I had two things going for me, which all non-experts have when writing about science. First, I made no assumptions about the work or about what my readers would already know about the subject. Second, I did not use jargon – because I didn’t understand it. I’m often surprised by how much scientists think the general public knows about their fields of study. For example, a researcher I was interviewing recently said “Surely most people know what tissue engineering is?” Actually, I think most people probably have no idea what tissue engineering is. We have to explain it to them.
When writing about research findings, I usually start by asking what question or challenge the researchers were setting out to address. This can take a while. If the relevant scientists phrase things in technical language, I’ll ask them to define the terms. Then I ask them why they found this problem interesting. Sometimes it is pure intellectual curiosity. But usually the research question is one element of a much broader scientific question. Science is an iterative process, and the findings from a single research project may move us incrementally closer to understanding the genetic basis for a disease, how we can boost the efficacy of antibiotics, etc.
If I can get researchers to place their work in context, it becomes much easier to explain the relevance of their work to a lay audience. No, you don’t say, for example, “They have developed a cure for Alzheimer’s.” But it is fair, and important, to tell people if a team’s work is part of the overarching effort to help us understand Alzheimer’s disease.” Once people understand why something is important, they’re more likely to keep reading as you explain exactly what the researchers did.
Here’s another key point for science writers who aren’t experts in the subject they’re covering: when you’re interviewing the researchers, you can’t be afraid to sound stupid. If you don’t understand something they said, and you think you can “write around it,” you are going to screw up. If a researcher uses a term you don’t understand, ask him or her to explain it. I didn’t know what a TEM was until I asked someone about it when writing a piece on materials science. Why would I? (Incidentally, it’s a transmission electron microscope.) Remember: it’s better to ask now, and possibly feel a bit dim, than make a mistake when you’re writing and definitely look foolish.
Once you’ve explained the work, you get one more chance to place the findings in context. As I said, science is an iterative process. The findings you just wrote about are not the end of the line. The researchers may have answered one question, but it likely raises several more. What are those questions? Where does this work fit into the broader research field it is part of? Placing something in context means not only addressing what led up to a research project, but discussing what may come next. Exploring future research directions helps readers appreciate where findings fit into the continuum of a specific field of research.
Being a non-expert will not make someone a good science writer. But it’s not the kiss of death either. If you pay attention to detail, ask good questions, and aren’t afraid to admit how little you know, you can actually turn your ignorance to your advantage. I’ve found that if I can get an expert to explain something to the point where I can understand it, then I’ll be able to explain it to anyone else.