Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson shouldn’t get to have all the science fun. Who could forget the “Food Web” episode of Bill Nye’s TV show, when he went grocery shopping in scuba gear in a quest to demonstrate that all living things depend on other living things to survive? And Tyson, in addition to creating a truly epic reboot of his hero Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” has also been tagged The Funniest Scientist on Twitter (it’s true — he is).
They’ve made science both accessible and compelling in their work as the Public Faces of Science Stuff. Making science engaging for the average human is a challenge, because so much of it is buried behind a wall of acronyms, chemical formulas, and complex mathematical equations.
For example, what the heck is C9H16O2? It’s bourbon.
What’s REGIROE? Reproduction, uses energy, growth and development, internal regulation, responds to environment, order, evolution — the acronym that describes the seven characteristics of all life forms.
Of course, everybody’s familiar with F = G*((m sub 1*m sub 2)/r^2). Okay, just kidding, that’s the mathematical formula for Earth’s gravity.
Science jargon is the enemy of accessibility. And that enemy is the norm in academic papers, which is a real buzzkill if you’re trying to tell people “Science is FUN. And AWESOME.” Scientists don’t pursue science just because it’s something to do. They do it because they’re passionate about it. But science education and communication too often surgically remove all the fun and awesome and replace it with those dreaded acronyms, chemical formulas, and complex mathematical equations. These elements are critically important to the science itself, but woefully bad at firing up anyone not already deeply embedded in that science.
The Power of Storytelling
Full disclosure: I’ve spent a good part of my consulting career helping companies and their leadership teams tell stories about their missions, their products, and their services. Until I pivoted into healthcare — a cancer diagnosis can do that to a person — I was a corporate story consultant, after a long stint helping tell stories on network TV news.
So I’m not surprised that forward-thinking scientists are pushing for more accessible public discussion of science using storytelling. Canadian epidemiologist Atif Kukaswadia is in that chorus of voices advocating for more storytelling in science communication and science education. “My basic premise is this: Science is awesome, but science needs to do a better job of communicating that awesomeness to non-scientists,” he said in a post on the PLOS Sci-Ed blog. “We’re sitting on the frontiers of human knowledge, and yet we cannot get others as excited about this issue that we’re very, very passionate about.”
In the TEDx talk embedded in Kukaswadia’s blog post, he talks about his own a-ha moment about the power of story. He realized that weaving a tale — a true one — around the science topic is the magic bullet to having people understand what the implications and impact are of the discoveries being shared.
Keep It Simple
The key to breaking down any complex topic is to figure out a framework that includes all the elements of that topic in an easy-to-understand story. If that sounds simple, I challenge you to a round of Up Goer 5, a tool inspired by a Randall Munroe xkcd comic that broke down the engineering behind Saturn 5 rockets (Saturn 5 rockets launched all Apollo missions to the moon, and put SkyLab in orbit) using only “the ten hundred most used words” in the English language. (Spoiler alert: “Thousand” isn’t one of those words.)
Here’s my prescription for joining the “science is fun” party:
- If you’re a scientist, team up with a writer or visual artist to spitball ways of translating your work into a compelling story. Consider adding visuals beyond funnel plots and graphs to your journal articles, including infographics that might pass the Up Goer 5 test (or the Up Goer 6, which is more forgiving of big words) .
If you’re a regular Joe/Jane who’s interested in science, start participating in it, and then sharing the story of your own science experiences. You can do that in many ways, from checking out the citizen science project site SciStarter to exploring the open trials here on Science 37.
You can get involved in making healthcare better for everyone around the world by joining the SciStarter project Cochrane Crowd. Cochrane is a British nonprofit, nongovernmental organization formed to organize medical research findings so as to facilitate evidence-based choices about health interventions faced by health professionals, patients, and policymakers. Help improve medical evidence in real time, from your desk chair.
The point here is to make clear that science actually is fun, and part of that is because it can help explain how things work. Science is life. Your car works because of science. You like to cook? Heat + edible materials = science. Ever have polio? Thank science (and Jonas Salk) if your answer is “no.” You’re reading this on the internet? Science (thanks, Tim Berners-Lee!). Dive in, and share your discoveries — with us here on the blog, or on the social media platform of your choice. Join in, learn something, tell the world — you might change the world. All you have to do is…start.