Tag Archives: Jad Abumrad

On “island hopping” and emphasizing the unknown in science communication

Photo: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY

This year’s final plenary at the AAAS Meeting in DC featured Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Abumrad served up sage advice and challenged the status quo model of science communication. 

How does the communication of science to the mainstream public work today? First, scientists do their science and then (eventually) publish a paper featuring new results in a scientific journal. If the paper is published in a top-tier journal and/or has broad implications for the public, it may receive some press coverage and reach the eyes of non-scientists. The results will have been translated by the journalist writing the piece in an attempt to make the jargon more accessible. As Abumrad nicely stated, journalists writing about science have to “hop” between “islands” or various linguistic spheres. Each scientific field and subfield has its own island featuring unique terminology. The ability to “island hop,” Abumrad argues, should not be restricted to journalists. Each scientist should be to talk “across the table” and explain his or her research to any non-expert. Metaphors, anthropomorphism, and relatable terminology are the most helpful tools here. For instance, Abumrad featured research describing different genes which regulate processes in the cell. Instead of using the technical acronyms for the genes, Abumrad gave them whimsical names (the “grim reaper” and “fountain of youth” genes) based on their functions. He also paired these names with memorable gene “voices” to anthropomorphize them and make them relatable for the audience. Any scientist can use this example and work to “island hop” – translating the results of their own research in a creative way.

After describing “island hopping,” Abumrad offered a provocative suggestion to scientists: instead of emphasizing results and “what we know,” focus on the unknown. This way, the public will become more interested in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and science as a process of discovery. This emphasis may also drive the public to support funding for science and the consideration of science in policy. However, there are several challenges inherent in this suggestion. First of all, it is the antithesis of the status quo. Scientists publish a paper presenting new results and focus on “what is known” now as a result of the research. This process occurs within a context of the scientific culture; competition for publications in top journals, large federal grants, and other milestones incentivize scientists to attempt to stand out from the crowd. How to stand out? By presenting the newest and most cutting edge results in academic journals which speak primarily to scientific peers. News coverage and outreach to the public is often seen as secondary (read: less important) communication. The system incentives a results-driven approach. Abumrad’s suggestion that scientists emphasize more of the questions and unknowns directly challenges this model.

Although the suggestion to emphasize unknowns may draw in new and curious audiences, there are several possible drawbacks. First, a shift in this direction may provide an unfortunate inlay for science deniers and skeptics to intervene in the discourse. We already see this today: as climate scientists rightfully communicate that models contain elements of uncertainty (which more precisely means that there are large confidence intervals in the results rather than blatant unknowns), deniers snatch this up and argue that the models and science are useless. The over-emphasis of questions and gaps in science (on climate change, evolution, or any controversial topic) allows a clear opportunity for deniers to reach a broader audience and incite doubt. In addition, a focus on unknowns may leave the public feeling unsatisfied by the lack of clear and packaged results, ultimately eroding the public’s excitement for science. Finally, an effort to emphasize questions and unknowns would be especially challenging for younger and less established scientists. Thriving in the competitive scientific environment requires that young scientists abide by the established conventions as they compete in the job market.

Given the challenges inherent in altering the status quo model of science communication, I would suggest that a healthy balance between the presentation of scientific results and the questions that these results generate offers the best way forward. It is up to both journalists and scientists to ask the right questions and provide a fair proportion of both novel results and exciting questions. This way, science may be appreciated for what it is –  a process of discovery – rather than simply a large body of facts.