From August 17th to September 2nd 2016 hundreds of students and experts from science, business, politics, arts and civil society gathered in Alpbach, Tyrol for the 71st European Forum Alpbach. This years topic was New Enlightenment and on the agenda was a set of interesting seminars, inspiring talks, hot discussions, and of course one or the other drink in Alpbachs (in-)famous Waschkuchl.
On of the things I hoped to take home was input on how to communicate science to a really interdisciplinary audience. In the first week – the seminar week – we had 5 days of seminars. 2 slots a day and for each slot 8 parallel sessions. The feedback for the speakers was immediate and merciless: if you did not present your topic interesting and understandable people got up and left. Starting 5 Minutes after the beginning of the session – not a lot of time to convince.
Some speakers really impressed with their communication skills, but I’d like to start with a somewhat negative example: oversimplification.
Fitting topic: climate change. Yes it is complex and you need to make sure not to loose people on the way of explaining some of the implications and connections. But even more important is – in my opinion – that you don’t simplify away essential things. There comes the point where stuff becomes wrong if you simplify it too much. Example? When talking about prognosis from the IPCC reports I think it is crucial to introduce uncertainty to your audience somehow. Maybe you don’t have to go through the entire Guidance Note for the Consistent Treatment of Uncertainty, but you should really make a distinction between observed change and projected change. For projected change you have to introduce the idea of model uncertainties, which was not done in this seminar unfortunately. I was polite enough to stick around until the first break so I can give another example of not ideal communication:
The distinction between statements about, e.g., global mean temperature rise and more local phenomena like heavy precipitation increases. Heavy precipitation is not just becoming more frequent. Sure you can get your point across by saying that: our climate is changing, more extreme events will occur and affect us. But I think it would be worth the time and effort to diversify a bit and maybe go with something like: there are regions where heavy precipitation is becoming more frequent. This then also gives the chance to get another point across: the climate system is just not that simple. If you are really interested maybe look into it more.
A more positive example: sex. It always gets peoples attention. And before you even realise the presenter used the average number of partners per person to causally introduce not Gaussian distributed data to you. And I’m gonna go out on a limb here and claim that everybody actually understood what he was talking about. Because they paid attention.
Or the development of a network on the example of relationships at an American High School during one year. Somehow makes these dots way more interesting to think that each line represents a relationship. Is this structure he is pointing at in the picture below by any chance the football team and the cheerleaders? Seems like they changed partners quite a lot…
One more example which really impressed me: fresh water security in Bangladesh. Some really technical processes but the presenter managed to really keep the audience occupied. She always went back to things everybody understood: why is it important, how did it affect the local population, pictures of small villages implementing some basic hygienic measures. I always knew why it is important and I should care.
I guess my point is this: people want to understand (or at least that has to be the assumption). They don’t mind if it gets complex or difficult or if they not fully getting one or the other technical term. Don’t patronize them by making it to simple and don’t “compromise” your own research in the process. Sure, some topics are more difficult to present than others but I believe if one is an expert in her/his field it is always possible to find something which is relevant to a broad audience and then work on from there. Or use sex.
If not stated otherwise all pictures/figures are by Lukas Brunner and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.