EGU Blogs

Science Communication

The crux of the matter – language, context, and narrative

Throughout this series, I have highlighted the pitfalls and issues associated with effective communication of scientific knowledge to and with the public. This has largely been fueled by a recent paper highlighting these points as stepping stones and hurdles which scientists face and can develop upon to create strategies for becoming better at public communication. However, I’ve yet to offer any kind of solution.

Yesterday, I wrote briefly about the way in which geoscientists can use different plots to help them reconstruct scientific information into a digestible narrative format, taking on the style of a refashioned ‘story’. Continuing to draw upon the analysis by Iain Stewart and Ted Nield, this post will focus on how developing a narrative and particular language can help researchers to ‘talk geoscience’ in a more engaging manner.

To reiterate the actual issue, I’m going to steal a quote from the Stewart and Nield paper citing the geoscientist and science writer Rex Buchanan (it’s like he was made to be a geoscientist with a name like that..):

“We do a mediocre job of helping adults to learn about and appreciate science. Many of the science stories that I read in newspapers or try to watch on television aren’t very engaging. Some are too long, and many seem irrelevant. Popular science often seems like castor oil – some we should take because it’s good for us, not because we want too” (2005)

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Story-telling rocks.

‘Story-telling’ is often quoted as a way of communicating scientific ideas to non-scientific audiences. It’s seen as a way of providing a form of narrative with which an audience can relate to, and thus provide a more engaging account of a scientific report. Admittedly, not everything can be transformed into a story of sorts, but there are many aspects of science, be it theoretical, model-based, or empirical that can benefit from communication via this format.

With regards to this format of communication, it seems (in my little experience) that there are a suite of phrases that are often used somewhat interchangeably, but which have different meanings and different purposes.

Plot – Storyline, or plan of a scientific report.

Theme – The pervading subject throughout a report.

Story – An account of an event or series of events, or something that can be instructional in a broader sense.

Narrative – The telling of the story, and the manner in which it is told.

Context – The discourse that frames the report, within which it can be fully understood in relative terms.

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The role of TV in geoscience communication

This is now the fifth part in a series exploring the public communication of geoscience, this time focusing on the role that television can play as a communication medium. It is based on, and a development of the ideas conveyed within a paper by Iain Stewart, no stranger to TV himself, and Ted Nield, a writer of popular geoscientific novels and Editor of Geoscientist magazine published by the Geological Society.

The four previous posts, in order, are:

1. Why bother with communication?
2. What do the public already know about geoscience?
3. Who are this ‘public’ we are aiming to communicate with?
4. What is the role of the mass media and newspapers in communication?

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Geoscience in the news

This is the fourth part of a series looking at how we should effectively communicate geoscience, based largely on a recent paper by Iain Stewart and Ted Nield. The previous post attempted to address the insanely impossible question of ‘who are the public?’, when it comes to public engagement’. It seems that this is very much a disciplinary issue, each with their own collective suite of hurdles and mountains to climb. The conclusion, I think, was that although identifying various ‘publics’ and sub-categories based on social traits, the use of this is only in identifying some sort of strategic framework for science communication to operate within, when what we really should be doing is ignoring that, and actually going out there and actually doing things. At the recent Festival of Geology in London, I saw kids (and adults!) having a blast playing with robotic trilobites. As a form of communication, I’d say doing practical things like that are infinitely more valuable than discussing which public group the trilobites are trying to commune with (as an example).

Almost as cool as this rideable trilobite!

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