Science Snobs – You just wouldn’t understand…

Since we’re now transitioning between the connectome-based unit of our semester and our neuroethics discussion to follow, I thought I would do some general science ranting (as Melissa calls it). The other day, my friend and I were asked to give the title of our senior theses along with a short description to someone in the administration. I asked my friend how long her description was, and she replied that she didn’t even write one because “it’s too hard to explain to non-scientists”. This aggravated me for a couple of reasons.

For one, what’s the point of her thesis research if other people can’t understand it? Yes, the research will help build future experiments and progress in her area of study (which is not neuroscience, if you were wondering) regardless of whether or not outsiders understand, but shouldn’t the results of her study have meaning to people outside her realm as well? Since I know the basics of her project, I can say that it is certainly applicable to the general public. And I think that if given the chance, everyone can grasp the gist of her work and definitely its significance. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn the importance of communicating complex scientific ideas to a general audience. In fact, this seminar itself is based on this crucial skill. My friend’s department doesn’t emphasize this concept very much, to my knowledge. I only recently came across this practice in my department (biology); most times I’ve practiced communicating scientific results to a general audience have been outside the classroom in summer research experiences or independent studies. Academic classes tend to focus on the ability to convey the nitty-gritty details of concepts and experiments rather than the ability to summarize findings to the public. Perhaps the various science departments (and other disciplines, for that matter) at Colby and other schools should consider making this practice either a required course or encourage professors to include general audience communication skills in more of their classes.

Secondly, I know that my friend is more than capable of translating the complexities of her research to simpler terms. I’m sure she didn’t take the time because this particular task was very low on her list of priorities, but it got me thinking that there are probably lots of scientists out there who take pride in the fact that they are one of a few who can comprehend their work. While it may be true for many subject areas that only researchers in the specific field can fully comprehend each experiment, that shouldn’t justify a lack of communication of the research to the public. Sure, often times the public won’t care about a tremendously intricate, complicated study, but the scientists should be able to explain it if the public did want to know. Scientists shouldn’t act toward general audiences with the ‘they-would-never-understand-so-why-bother-trying’ attitude. And how can a scientist expect to get grant money without the ability to remove jargon from their discussion? I’m not sure how many scientists out there actually act in this manner, but based on my observations of science majors talking to humanities majors at Colby, they definitely exist. No one likes a science snob.

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4 thoughts on “Science Snobs – You just wouldn’t understand…

  1. I completely agree with this! The more I read popular science, the more aware I become of the crucial role that scientists play in serving as the interface between the public and scientific research. I think that someone who truly knows what he is talking about does not need to hide behind the jargon. It is also so important for scientists to engage the community around them and make the research that they do accessible and easy to unpack. I think there is a pervasive attitude in science research that communication is high-priority, due to the often insulating nature of the work. However, I think that it is important that scientists make the information topical, relevant, and informative for the general audience – how else will we improve science literacy, and on a more mercenary note, find people to support funding?

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  2. I don’t believe this just lends it hand to science. This is more about the type of person than actually being a scientist isn’t it? While I agree totally with your opinion in regards to the general public needing to be able to understand if necessary, it’s up to the person of any field they “specialise ” in, to want to take the time to care if anyone else understands it.

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  3. I love this post! It is so much harder to phrase science-y things in simple terms! Those that can do it are truly epic.

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  4. At it’s core, though, isn’t that what this whole semester is about? If nothing else, I’m coming out of this class with the understanding that the only reason something should be too hard to explain to a non-expert is because you don’t fully understand what the jargon means yourself. The English language, though complex and illogical at times, has a very large bank of synonyms, metaphors and parallels that can be drawn upon to illustrate a point. I firmly believe that a thorough understanding of one’s topic is the only requirement for communicating an idea to those with little or no specialized background.

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