Opinions on Science communication from the ex-chair of the NSW branch of the Australian Science Communicators. Note the rants carried on about here are not necessarily those of the ASC, nor of the Uni of Sydney, School of Physics (where I work), nor of the Australian Institute of Physics... perhaps not even of myself, but, well, if they get you thinking that's a good thing...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

James Brown - Science communicator?!?

On Friday night I had the pleasure, nay, the honour of seeing the
Godfather of Soul Himself - James Brown - in concert. It made me think
about science communication. What, you may ask, does a James Brown show
have to do with science communication? Well, as it happens, not a great
deal. Which, I think, is a problem.

James Brown is the ultimate entertainer. Even though he's over 70, his
shows are tightly rehearsed, a feast for the eyes as well as the ears,
and you come away hyped. The whole thing is designed to enthrall the
audience, with shimmying doo-wop girls, the band resplendant in
"military" costumes, and a brace of hosts who pop up at appropriate
times to whip the crowd into a frenzy. The result? I went in feeling a
little weary from a busy week, a bit sluggish after a nice meal, and by
the end I was jumping out of my seat to dance, in contravention of the
regulations at the State theatre. (By the way, what promoter books James
Brown - JAMES BROWN! into a non-dancing venue ?!?!)

Yet science is so dull. We are taught so often to remove all the
emotion, report your findings impartially and impersonally. Use neutral
language and removal all trace of the personality of the author.

Well I say Bollocks to that! Look at Steve Irwin. Personality spilling
over! Enthusiasm all over the place! His science is exciting. That's
what people want - they respond to other humans, not to emotionless
robots. Even David Attenborough, in his restrained, oh-so-British style,
shows his love of the subject, it shines out of his eyes.

And as science communicators that's what we have to do too. Show not only what
it is, but why it's good. Inspire people with our own interest in the
subject. It's not a scientific report (and I would argue that you can
put emotion into a scientific report, too, but that's for another day), so
let a few emotions and colourful adjectives loose in your prose. My
journalism teacher told me, the point is to entertain and to inform -
but entertain first. Without entertainment, you lose your audience; then
the informing part just never happens. And just cos it's fun doesn't make it factually inaccurate.

So don't be afraid to put on a show. Use the lighting, and some atmospheric
music. Dress up, and dress your stage, too. Rehearse your moves and your
dramatic pauses.

And heck, why not get a guy with slick hair and bow-tie to come out
before the plenary speaker and yell at the crowd..."Sydney... are you

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A year or so ago I took up theatre sports. To qualify to play in Sydney you have to complete 16 weeks of training, where you learn how all the different games work, but more importantly some basics of drama, story telling and improvising scenes as a team.

It’s given me lots of insights into communicating science, which you’ll surely hear about in this blog. One of the lessons was about the use of status. When setting up a scene, especially an improvised one, it’s important to be aware of which characters have high status, or “the power” and who is low status. It’s a big part of the drama of the scene, and then when characters switch status there’s lots of comedic potential.

But it made me realise the common status relationship in science communication – expert scientist talks to audience of plebs.

Have you ever had that experience? Where you go to a science talk and come out feeling stupider than when you went in? The expert, the world leader in his field talked down his nose at you, and you were a low status worm fortunate to have had an audience with him. You didn’t really understand what he was talking about, but there is no way you are going to stick up your hand and humiliate yourself further by asking a stupid question.

It’s not very conducive to learning, or any sort of communication, really.

Last week was the Australian Science Communicators visit to the Amazing Human Body exhibition, led by Dr Karl and Prof Cris. Aside from the plasticised body exhibits – which are indeed amazing – it was a chance for me to see the great Dr Karl at work.

I noticed the status he adopts with his audience – low! He would be seen by many people as one of Australia’s most intelligent, informed, with it experts. But he doesn’t act that way.

When he does his radio talk back he always addresses callers as Doctor. And when he works with other experts he always defers to their knowledge. And at the Human Body exhibition he instantly welcomed the audience and invited their questions and input. He respects the knowledge of his audience, and thereby instantly opens the channels of communication.

When a question is asked he listens carefully and clarifies it before pondering out loud possible answers. And he is not afraid to say “I don’t know”. But when you ask a question you know that you will go on a journey of discovery together.

What fun! You are now a world class scientist indulging your curiosity about the world, engaged on a quest for knowledge! Much better than being an ignorant worm!