The secrets of being a good Science Communicator

By Adrian Ong

I was reading this book titled “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” by Randy Olsen.

Don't Be Such A Scientist

As I breezed through the pages chronicling Olsen’s journey going from a scientist to become a filmmaker, I came across this interesting image:

 

Good Science Communicator Bodybuilder

Olsen was sharing about what he learnt about effective communication, using the bodybuilder as an analogy:

To reach the broadest audience, you need to move the process out of the head (1) and into the heart (2) with sincerity, into the gut (3) with humour and intuition, and, ideally, if you’re sexy enough, into the lower organs (4) with sex appeal.

This analogy by Olsen was interesting, because over the course of the past three years as I trudge on as a part time MSc in Science Communication student, there have been discussions in the various modules about how scientists tend to be very cerebral about their research. Their findings would usually remain in their heads (1), and this makes it challenging for the public to understand the thought processes of the scientist.

With reference to the heart (2), it would be hard to believe that scientists are not passionate about what they do. Then the question lies – why are some scientists coming cross as being aloof and position themselves in ivory towers? I am inclined to believe that while scientists have the heart for scientific research, they may treat communication of Science as something that they are obliged to carry out, and comes across as being insincere when attempting to communicate outside of the scientific community.

Getting scientists to move the process into the gut (3) would also pose a challenge, because they are probably uncomfortable with communicating with the public. As such, it would not be easy to be spontaneous and be able to reach out to non-scientists with humour and intuition.

One person who comes to mind in terms of his ability to reach out with humour and intuition is Mr Steve Spangler. As a former Science teacher turned YouTube celebrity with his own channel “Sick Science!” and occasional guest of The Ellen Show, Spangler is able to make Science demonstrations (and the learning of Science) accessible to the public. Spangler always made it a point to create demonstrations that are of a larger scale than what it has to be.

For example, there was once Spangler used about 1900 litres of water and 1100 kg of corn starch to make a trough of non-Newtonian fluid and got an audience member to “walk on water”. While it was riveting to watch if the audience member sank into the trough of corn starch solution, I wandered if there is a need to waste so much corn starch to prove a point and not necessarily explain the Science behind it.

In another episode, Spangler carried out the Elephant Toothpaste demonstration, and almost immediately went on to another demonstration without explain the scientific phenomena. Perhaps it is the requirements of modern day mass media, if the demonstration does not make an impact and there is a lull in the stimulation of senses of the audience, that demonstration would not make good television. It makes one think if there is a way to balance the good Science and good television.

As for the lower organs (4), I noticed that, in recent years, television presenters of Science documentaries (for example on National Geographic and Animal Planet) tend to possess a certain rugged charm, especially if they are featuring big animals in the wild.

 

I am thinking that it is likely that the producers of such documentaries, considered that the external appeal brought about by these television presenters would help draw people to stay on such educational channels long enough to appreciate the Science that is presented.

This made me think about the role of “sex appeal” in Science. Maybe a question for us all to ponder on:

WWF Logo

If the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) logo is a frog or [insert any organism that makes you go ewww] instead of a panda, do you think as many people would rally behind their causes?

 

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