Communicating Science: Know your Audience!

December 22nd, 2009

All of writing hinges on knowing your audience.   This is true of fiction and non fiction, and applies not only to writing, but communication of all kinds from entertainment to education.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot after reading Randy Olson’s very interesting and worthwhile book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, which is about a scientist turned filmmaker and how to reach broad audiences, and contrasting his ideas with those in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America, which hits on some similar topics but is shallow and ultimately a failure.   In fact, that book made me name Mooney a “stupid smart person.

Randy Olson has really made me think about audience in a deeper way, and I’ve always been very aware of audience and made adjustments accordingly (for the most part).   Still, I think he’s missed a few tricks along the way, and Mooney and Kirshenbaum definitely have.

First, Olson is right about one thing.   A sizable fraction of scientists (he says 1/3), are curmudgeons who only want information and want it with as few frills as possible.   Anyone adding frills is right out.   And these scientists are too narrow-minded to have a broader perspective.   Case in point.   Passive voice sucks in writing, and nearly everyone would agree.   But not that fraction of scientists.   I was refereeing a paper last year, written by someone junior to me, and I made some stylistic suggestions about changing some passive sentences to the active voice (not even involving “I” or “we” — just stuff like “Table 1 shows the data…” instead of “The data are given in Table 1…”).   The author told me that she preferred the passive voice in scientific articles and rejected my suggestions.   You can lead a horse to water, but…

So where I am I going with this?

Well, I have been really struggling with the issue of calling a spade a spade (e.g., creationists, science deniers of other strips) or being less confrontational.

I think the answer depends on the audience and goals.

Here, my readership is a particular niche of science and science fiction fans, primarily.   I am preaching to the choir most days, I suspect.   A good, angry, and righteous rant can be inspirational to like-minded people.   That’s a good thing, but it would be a bad thing if I was writing for a general audience.   I would come across as mean, arrogant, etc., even though I would likely be totally right, and people would ignore me or even harden against me.   No good.

The general audience cares less for facts and what’s right.   That’s hard for the non-expert to be sure about, so they look for other clues.   They look for likability,   and get turned off by arrogance.   They need a subtle touch, and do not weigh debates rationally.   Which SUCKS.   But until I can change our entire educational system, culture, and species demographics, isn’t going to change much.

Olson gets some things wrong, I think.   I doesn’t like the rants and negativity on scienceblogs, for instance, but he doesn’t appreciate their niche audiences.   At the same time, he admits that peer pressure, his friends in college laughing at him for believing everything he read in Reader’s Digest, changed his mind.   That was not his friends being nice and understanding.   That was his friends ridiculing his ridiculous position.   Being negative can sway in the right context.

So, what are the issues?

Well, If your audience is anti-science, you have to be conciliatory, likable, reasonable.   Unless it is the hardcore fundie who isn’t going to change, but that isn’t the target audience in most cases.   In most cases it is the reasonable but uninformed person watching such a debate who will decide who “wins” based on something other than the facts they don’t yet fully appreciate.   And when you’re preaching to the choir, a little bit of being an ass is okay.   But for the special choir of hardcore scientists, they just want the facts and any enhancement is a negative to them.

I remember reviewing a grant proposal once that was very nicely written with some great analogies, enthusiasm, and style.   And I bumped it up in my grade for that.   Once of my fellow panel members, however, commented on the “extreme” writing style and wanted to put something in the comments to admonish the proposer.   God, I thought this person was ridiculous with that review, but it reflected his opinion, and probably that of 1/3 of the panel.

Well, I can’t change THAT much.   I’m going to write effectively as best I know how and can’t make myself do things that suck just to satisfy some of my clueless peers.   I understand them, but I won’t compromise that much.   They’re only 1/3, so I can still win…sometimes.   But I do worry less about the presentation for scientist-only audiences.   A single factual error, however…

So, I am still learning how to do this, and feel like no one knows the exact formula.   Olson’s formula is to be like Carl Sagan, except only Sagan was Sagan.   I will be me, trying to be Sagan-like when addressing broad audiences.   He wrote science fiction, too, and I feel something kindred with him.   He was also here in Wyoming for the dedication of our local observatory (with a racy story to boot, which I approve of).   He somehow avoided the label of being arrogant that Dawkins has stamped on his forehead now.   Personally I don’t think it’s arrogant to be right and frustrated with stupid people, but I’m in a minority on that one.

Know thyself, and know thy audience.

Randy Olson’s book, Unscientific America, scienceblogs, inspiring the choir, audience, and converting the masses when style is substance…

Science is the antithesis of style over substance, so not self-consistent in practice


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