Four Reasons Why Scientists Can’t Communicate

By Shlomo Maital


     As a professor, I’ve become keenly aware how poor we profs are at communicating our ideas to others, in understandable clear and actionable ways.   I think we economists find meaning in life by confusing the most people we can. Now an expert comes along and explains why. Tim Ward’s blog was published in Society for Conservation Biology News and a relative in NYC passed it on to me.

“Four Mistakes Scientists Make When They Communicate:

  1. Certainty. Scientists are trained skeptics, so they back away from certainty. But outside the realm of science, people interpret expressions of certainty as more likely to be true than expressions of cautious probability. It’s a losing tactic to insist on speaking of certainty only in the scientific sense. Instead, think about how you can speak with certainty in the commonly understood sense. For example, you can say with certainty: “According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree the climate is warming. I’m certain the risk is great and we need to act now.”
  2. If you don’t have a seat at the table, you won’t have a voice at the table. We learned this principle from Dr. Alan Thornhill, who now works for the US Department of the Interior. He told us that at many meetings where policy decisions were being made, he was the only scientist in the meeting. There were many times others turned to him with scientific questions, only because he happened to be in the room. During other discussions he would interject with, “Hold on a minute, we have to look at the scientific research on that before we decide.”
  3. Assuming the facts will speak for themselves: they don’t. You must advocate for the facts.   Communicating for influence is a matter of survival of the fittest. It’s not enough to deliver your information. You are competing with other voices. Use memorable quotes and messages to make your facts stick.
  4. Focusing on evidence, not on relevance.   Scientists too readily dive into the details of their research when speaking in public. But in the real world, if people don’t know why the topic is important to them, they won’t pay attention, and they won’t be listening when you get around to relevance at the end of your talk.  In sum, communication is not about output, it’s about impact.”