EGU Blogs

Earth Systems

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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Who the devil are this ‘public’ everyone keeps rambling on about?

The last two posts in this series, based on a recent paper by Ted Nield and Iain Stewart, addressed the issues of why should scientists bother communicating, and what do people in general already know about science, and geoscience in particular. Oddly, these are the most fundamental questions when it comes to science communication, but often can be the most difficult to answer. They either require a degree of personal subjectivity, or data that can be extremely difficult to obtain and measure in any meaningful way.

Throughout any discussion of science communication, the ‘engagees’ are typically referred to as ‘the general public’, and on a more specific level, public stakeholders – those who require or will use in some way the information being conveyed to them. Scientists are probably best at communicating between other branches of scientist, be they in academia, industry, government, or elsewhere. I guess this is due to the inherent fact that there will more often be a commonality of both understanding and interest, within fields, that may not be as highly replicated outside of these spheres.

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Co-evolution, the greatest show on Earth?

One of the great questions that Palaeontology poses is how did life and the Earth co-evolve together? This is especially so in the case of early life during the Phanerozoic period (540 million years ago until now), when complex multi-cellular life took off and ultimately came to dominate the planet. When one considers the vast number of potential factors involved in this, it can be pretty overwhelming. To start off with, you have organisms themselves which adapt through altering their physical appearance and functionality. Driving this, you have the environment and the ecosystems in which organisms dwell. How many parameters can you think off that may have some effect, any effect, on the life of an organism or population of organisms, that could have some impact on evolutionary trajectory? There’s a lot, right? Some of the major environmental factors include oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, nitrogen, temperature, humidity. You can find variations of almost any environmental variable nowadays, and correspond it to variability in the local biota. But what about during the Phanerozoic? How much can we still see left preserving this great orchestra of ever-changing life and planet?

The complex spiral of life on Earth. But what about the fine points of co-evolutionary history? Source: Astrobioblog (click for larger image)

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