Aug 162016
 
Grumpy cat face

Science has a PR problem. You only have to look at the recent interaction between heartthrob scientist Professor Brian Cox and climate change denier MP Malcolm Roberts to see that, obviously, something has been lost in translation. Ol’ Malco’ doesn’t trust scientists and is very happy not to listen to them. There will always be people who believe in things regardless of how much evidence you show them to the contrary. We are all susceptible to it. I used to have a goatee and was convinced I didn’t look like a sex offender accidentally allowed out on day release. The question is – why don’t people listen to scientists?

I know why. The majority of scientists are boring science twats. In the past, that actually was OK. There was a certain charm about boring science twats with their big shiny foreheads avoiding eye contact as if their life depended on it. As times have moved on, we can’t pretend that the skills associated with being a successful scientist are the same as those required to talk to people on a human level about science.

So don’t worry, read on. I have some advice for you.

If you find yourself talking to an actual, real life person don’t be fooled into thinking that they care about your research in the same way you do.  When Bob from next door invites you over for a drink he’ll ask you about your research. This is not the time to actually tell Bob how much funding you expect to receive, or how many papers you have got this year – these facts are to Bob as Bob’s new tarot cards are to you – pointless. What Bob wants is a one sentence summary of your entire life’s work that’s also a euphemism for sex (preferably one that isn’t funny or clever). For example, Prof Brian Cox could respond like this:

I just released a television series where I used a telescope to explore a black hole” – Brian Cox

Next, If you are talking about science to anyone and you see something similar to this expression:

Oprah looking unimpressed

STOP! You are officially being a boring science twat. The thing is, as a scientist you get used to seeing this face. You see it in lectures, meetings, conferences and on the faces of post-docs when they are told to publish more. But in the real world this is a very bad sign. At this point, ask a question about the other person and pretend to listen as you think about all the papers you have got this year and how they make you feel warm in the pant area.

Finally, when people first meet you and discover that you work in a University some may feel intimidated. Little do they know it’s essentially a hideaway for the unfortunate who were bullied in high school. I like to demystify the ivory towers by talking about my favorite toilets in each building. Everyone has their favorite toilet, you know, the ones that are warm, not busy with good WiFi signal.

Actual humans don’t care about citations, papers and impact factors. They care about stories. Sad ones, happy ones and ones that don’t include boring long words and self-promoting bullshit. Tell them a story about what you get up to. There’s lots of articles and advice available about the storytelling of science. A clever man said:

“Science stories differ from stories in the humanities in at least two critical aspects, namely, the purpose of the story and the role of the reader or listener. The central purpose of the science story is, after all, to improve the teaching and learning of science, not to just entertain or to communicate a message as is the case for a story in the humanities.” (Klassen, 2009)

After a scientist – non-scientist interaction, your aim is to make the person think “That scientist wasn’t a boring twat at all. Maybe there’s something to this anthropogenic climate change”.


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