Monday, January 25, 2010

Are Scientists Likeable?

I'm reading a book about science communication, and the author makes a point about how the public views scientists, e.g., when they are interviewed or appear in film.  Most (all?) scientists think that the most important thing they must convey is accuracy.  However, they often neglect to consider the impression they make with how they speak and how they look. When asked a question, they often equivocate and say something like, "Well, it depends".  Or, they may ramble on and on spewing out a bunch of facts and figures rather than give a simple, direct answer. We scientists, hearing this are unperturbed, knowing that the speaker is simply qualifying their answers to be as accurate as possible.

The average person watching such a display reacts negatively, however---thinking that the scientist either is clueless or is untrustworthy.

I sometimes ask my students and staff to pretend that they are approached by a member of the public (e.g., a fisherman) while doing fieldwork and to explain in one or two sentences what they are doing and why it's important.  The results are often hilarious--and incomprehensible to the average person.

What many scientists don't understand is that to be an effective communicator, they must have both "substance" (what you say) and "style" (how you say it).  The style part is what baffles scientists. They think that stating their facts and logic is the way to win people over: "If I explain things accurately, then it doesn't matter how I say it or how I look.  Right?"

Wrong.  The average person watching an interview or debate will initially focus on how the person looks and behaves (is he neatly dressed? is she relaxed?) and on the message second.  If her eyebrows look like they need attention with a weed-whacker or if he's dressed like a homeless person, I guarantee you that the audience is making a judgment about that scientist's credentials based on appearance--and it's not good.

It's a lot like how people decide on which presidential candidate to vote for.  Do you think the average person pores over each candidate's stance on a multitude of issues or their qualifications for the job? Or do people decide based on whether they "like" the candidate?  I think the latter.

Consider the evolution vs. intelligent design debates.  Scientists have the facts and logic on their side, but the IDers are whooping our butts in public debates.  The ID proponents pay careful attention to both substance and style, with heavy emphasis on the latter.

Does this make sense to a literal-minded scientist?  Of course not.  But that's not the point.

This focus on style when it comes to science communication may sound ridiculous to you, but your opinion doesn't count.  If your audience decides you are a dork and not worth listening to, then it's going to be very difficult to get your message across.

Art by R. Campus

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