21 May 2012

Science communicators need to lead by example

The National Academy of Science is in the middle of hosting a two day Sackler colloquia on science communication. They had a live stream of sessions, which I was listening to through much of the day. Late in the afternoon, I commented:

Frustrating to watch #sackler livestream about science communication... and see same ol’ PowerPoint bullet list slides. Sigh.

This was not in response to any one talk, but several. I had been sensitized to this problem in part because of articles like this one from Randy Olson and this one from Chris Mooney. It all seemed to be a classic example of Randy Olson’s “nerd loop.” In the quest for better communication, people are so focused on being data driven and not on the actual practice of communication that they’re no better off than when they started.

I was not alone. Soon after I tweeted this, there was a whole thread on Twitter about how a colloquium on effective science communication was using the same crummy communication techniques that most of the speakers were arguing against.

Angela Shogren:

So many words on these slides! Doesn’t exactly showcase effective communication...

Sarah Goodier:

Science&the public are dealing with problems humanity has not encountered before - One such problem is not v wordy slides..

Karyn Traphagen:

Nevermind needing engineers in sci comm, we need some good designers to make presentations!

Emily Cassidy:

If ‘Sage on the Stage’ is not a good model, we need to change up how we run scientific conferences, including this one

Dan Glaser:

Remarkable & disappointing conference on communication has so much back to back overloaded PowerPoint. Physician, heal thyself?

Dan deserves kudos for getting up in the question session and pointing out that the presentations were low grade. People have to be told not to do this stuff any more.

For small conferences with only invited speakers, conference organizers might take a much stronger editorial hand. Demand that the audio visuals be submitted early. Review them. Put the same kind of effort into them that you would in editing a multi-author book.

Overall, the first day of the Sackler colloquium didn’t feel like it was as much about science communication as about science policy communication. It felt like it was all very big picture stuff (Fukushima! Nanotechnology!) that didn’t connect with what I’m trying to do as a jobbing scientist.

Nobody on day one had anything to say about science online, blogging, and so on. Keynote speaker Daniel Kahneman said nothing about online communication, even when asked directly.

A Storyify of the first day is here, though it misses the conversation on the presentation format.

1 comment:

Pat Kight said...

I just made much the same comment on Google+, having arisen at the crack of dawn, West Coast time, to catch the entire Webcast two days running. I was hoping more presenters would lead by example, but with a very few exceptions, the style was straight "academic symposium."

I was also disappointed to see science blogging and other "nontraditional" communication given such short shrift.

Don't get me wrong, the presenters had some really interesting things to say - but in public communication, style can be as important as substance. It's almost as if they set out to demonstrate the problem they came together to talk about.