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Why are you doing this?

10 November 201607:06AMrantsscicomm

No matter what you do, being flat out asked why you do it is a confronting question.

It's an even harder one when one of the standing debates in your chosen field is "...actually, what are we doing?"

I'm not going to dig into that debate right now, but suffice to say, I think the essence of what science communicators do is quite neatly summarised by a Spongebob .gif.

You take the knowledge from here, and you put it over there

We take the knowledge generated by experts, and we make it accessible to people who aren't experts. There are intricacies and details how and why, about best practices and motivations and techniques and models, and that's going to be different for everyone, and every situation. And sometimes, we do it backwards, teaching stuff to experts too – but I said I wasn’t going to get into that.

But ultimately, when you strip all the debate away, that's what we're doing. How and why is up to me.

And that brings me to the situation in which I actually found myself confronted with that question, with no distractions, no excuses, and nowhere to hide. It was during a weekend-long intensive unit earlier this semester. We had been locked away for a weekend on an island paradise (poor us), and were expected to grapple with everything we'd read over the last couple of weeks, teach a workshop all on our own, and engage with our own and our fellow students ideas on an unprecented level. Also, catch a buttload of Pokemon.

It was one of the most interesting weekends of my life.

We were asked this question on the morning of our first day, and as a bit of a conversational aid, given a series of strips with various potential motivations on them. And we ranked them, not just for ourselves, but for scientists and other communicators as well. And there's something about narrowing your options, about choosing from a list of eight rather than the infinite probability space of human thought, that has a way of crystallising ideas. Even if they're not dead on, they're a nucleation site, where something much more nuanced can grow.

Hedonism, improving decisions, and changing behaviour.

I have never been able to adequately articulate my answer to this question, for myself or anyone else, until now. I think, after having a list of options literally laid out in front of me, I think I've finally figured it out - and I'm going to share it with you. Strap yourselves in, everybody. It's gonna be a fun ride.

Why

Primarily, I do this because it's fun for me. This breaks down into three components, which light up circuits all over my brain and which, not coincidentally, are very conducive to a flow state. There's the process of discovery, of finding something new about the world - even if it's just new to me. There's the process of mastery, of turning that idea over and over in my head until it's smooth, describing it to myself over and over again until I have a perfect model. And then there's sharing: taking that perfectly condensed idea and showing it to someone else, shorting out that whole learning process in their brain and watching it light up behind their eyes as their understanding of the world shifts. The goal isn't retention, it's understanding. Facts can leak away, but if you change how someone thinks, even a tiny amount, that will stay with them for life.

They say 'write what you know.' Screw that. I'd rather write what I don't, and learn along the way.

Secondarily, I want people to be able to make informed decisions. This is something I've believed for a long time. The more relevant ideas, examples and data that you have to draw on when choosing something or forming an opinion, the better that decision will be. It'll be more defensible, and will tend to have a better outcome. As much as I am doing this for myself, because I learning cool new things, I also believe that it's important that people make the best informed decsisions they can, and as far as literally every other person who isn't me goes, that's as good a goal to be aiming for as any.

I feel that it's also important to say why I'm not doing this. I'm not a cheerleader for science. I'm not a publicist for science. I'm not a recruiter for science. That's not to say that any of these aren't science communication, because they are. They just aren't for me. Science is just one component of a wider society. And just like the rest of society, just like economics or ethics or philosophy, you can't just communicate 'the facts' as told to you. Sometimes an outside perspective is useful. Sometimes there are multiple sides to the story. Sometimes commentary and criticism is just as important as education. Sometimes, just like every institution, science needs to be scrutinised and held to account.

How

The job I'm in right now (presenting planetarium shows, mostly) is not perfectly aligned with where I want to be in my career, but it is in the right ball park. And although from my position at the bottom of the food chain doesn't have the scope for a lot of professional improvement, I can still try to improve myself and the way I approach things. With this in mind, I pledge:
To try to bridge the gap between science communication theory and practice, and be aware of the theoretical underpinnings of what I do.
To be an evidence based communicator, and to try and understand how my job actually works.
To engage in discussion with people, not just be a fact dispenser - because science centers are one of the few places dialogues about science can actually happen.
To be critical, both of science itself and of the science communication practice around me.

One day, though, I'd like to see myself in journalism. Or at least something journalism-adjacent. I want to be discovering, learning, and sharing for a living, to a much greater extent than what I do now. In that field, given my basically self-centered reasons for doing this stuff, I need to remember my audience. There is a risk, in science communication, of assuming nonscientists are idiots who hate science because they're idiots. It is an easy assumption to make, because the act of taking knowledge from one place to another seems to imply that there's [something lacking].

And there is, but it's not because they're morons. That's a sweeping generalisation. All it means is that they don't know that one bit of knowledge, and it's because they haven't needed it yet, and that maybe their opinions on things are informed by other parts of their lives. When they do need it, making sure that that knowledge is available, comprehensible, useful and considered critically is our role as science communicators.

So while I can't tell what I'll be doing in the future, and I can't make any guesses about how I should approach it, I can say this - I pledge to remember and respect my audience.

The Take-home Message

So that's what I learned in the first year of my Master's degree. It's something that, arguably, I should have known going in to the degree, but maybe learning it this way was better. I still don't know where I'm headed, when I'll get there, or if I'll change my mind once I do. But I know what I'm doing, and how to do it, and why I want to. Hopefully, as long as I have that, I'll always be going in the right direction.

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