Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Can Scientists Be More Likeable?

We scientists live in our heads, many of us happily spending hours staring at the wall thinking about some research problem. A colleague and I sometimes speculate about how a scientist would fare in a long-term hostage situation. John McCain, for example, kept his sanity during his Vietnam interlude by constructing a house in his mind. We think that scientists would do quite well, whiling away the hours pondering various science projects and theories.

For scientists, decisions are made based on logic and rational, linear thinking. In contrast, most everyone else reacts to the world through their heart, their gut, or their gonads. Appealing to intellect is not going to work for them without something that grabs them lower down in their anatomy.

I know what you are thinking. Why should I worry about what the general public thinks? Well, in our current media environment, in which it is often hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, compelling and effective communication of science to the general public is rapidly becoming of critical concern. There is a growing backlash against science--from evolution to climate change that could ultimately threaten our quality of life (if it hasn’t already). The anti-science movement is gaining an increasingly loud and influential voice, and if we don’t counter it effectively, science and its practitioners, as well as the world at large, are going to suffer.

If we only collect the data, but fail to communicate it in a compelling way, then we’ve not succeeded fully. The author of the book I’m reading (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) goes even further. He thinks that scientists will have to be much better communicators than in the past, focusing as much on style as on substance. He teaches a video-making workshop at a major oceanographic institute to graduate students with the goal of imparting the basics of camerawork, sound recording, and editing. The hope is that some of the students will be inspired to use more creative ways to communicate their love of and enthusiasm for science.

If you think amateur video is not an effective means of communication or that people would not be interested in watching home-made movies, then you haven’t spent much time looking at YouTube. In the past, video was only available to a limited number of people with access to sophisticated equipment and with years of schooling. Now, with inexpensive digital cameras and movie-editing software packaged on most computers, this communication outlet is available to anyone.

Back to my original question: are scientists likeable? Well, some of them are, but why? In the coming posts, I’ll try to delve into how scientists can be more effective at science communication. Part of the way to be more effective (at least relative to the general public) is to be more likeable. If you are likeable, then people will be more willing to trust you and to listen to your message.


RTSea said...

Excellent post. Couldn't agree with you more. I am a media communications pro and am focusing this year on helping scientific research and conservation groups improve their messaging.

Would like to chat more and send you some additional info. Check out and send me an email.

Zen said...