How to Explain Science to Non-Science People

The curse of knowledge!

Defined by Stephen Pinker as "The inability to imagine what it is like for someone else for not knowing something that you know".

So it is indeed quite a dangerous curse, and I am sure all researchers out there have it to an extent at any stage of their career. I could say that I was or maybe am still badly cursed, but I have been very aware of its presence since the moment I stepped into research. 

This curse can also be reflected when casually conversing with other group of researchers about your research or their research field, and at any point they or you feel left out because both parties don't speak the same language. (My apologies to whoever has listened to my jargon-heavy explanation 😓). The dangerous part is when none of us are willing to translate it so that we speak the same language, regardless of our research field!

Yes, it is true that in the research world, we have training for giving presentation, creating poster, giving a talk/podcast, but all this doesn't necessarily prepare us to target non-researchers or general public. Communicating a scientific concept to non-science people is a completely another field to master. It struck me hard while I was attending the popular science writing course run by the University of Cambridge.  While reviewing a piece of science writing, as much as I want to read in the perspective of the public, the fact that I am a researcher makes it harder to get true opinion on what can be improved in that writing. Many times, it is the jargon that make people give up on reading further.

Since reaching out to public about research and science is the main aim of my blog, here are some points that I learned throughout my experience to effectively explain science to general audience: 


1. Use A Good Analogy

In the beginning of my PhD , I have decided for my thesis to focus on cytoskeleton remodeling. Cytoskeleton are the filaments that hold the shape of the cell, and give a specific structure to entire tissue. My project also intends to modify these filaments by feeding cells the tablets containing shape modulating drug. This multidisciplinary project involves biology, chemistry and physics tools.

So, when I was collecting ideas for my literature review, I felt so overwhelmed and lost. For many weeks my life was under a challenging question : "how am I supposed to write a complex research background across disciplines (biology, chemistry and physics) without introducing too much foreign concepts?"

My supervisor then suggested me to use the analogy of a birds' nests to describe the cytoskeleton behavior. As cells adapt to mechanical forces by changing the structure of its skeleton, similar nature rules apply to how birds arrange sticks and twigs to make a nest with a desirable mechanical strength. My experimental data should include the observation of the resulting rearrangement of sticks and twigs of a bird's nest over time as it is being built.

My other supervisor, who is from chemical engineering, also used an analogy to explain the process of drug release in dialysis similar to tea bag in a water. This affected by many factors such as the thickness of the tea bag (membrane), temperature of the water, and concentration inside the bag. So the release of the drug can be controlled by modifying the environment such as concentration, buffer pH, thickness of the tablet coating, etc.

So, pick observable day to day things or common natural phenomena to make a good analogy, then really pick one that describes your science. At the end, a good analogy should help in describing a working principle. 


2. know and understand your audience 

Before even thinking of giving a talk or explaining about science, we have to know who we are talking to. The audience are the customer here, and the aim is to gain their understanding and trust in the research or science that we do. Find out about their professional background and how much science they are familiar with.

Understanding your audience can also help to easily relate to simple things about them. This can help gauge their interest and their ability to listen to the conveyed message.

The key is to always start from the "bottom line message", then work your way to the adding little by little of details. It is also best to speak in plain language and remember, don't use jargon!


3. What is it for them? how does it apply to them?

So, why do we bother to explain this to non-science audience and what is the direct application for them by listening to or understanding science? Well, the motive should come from a very simple reason such as to improve public health, to raise interest or awareness, or to improve life quality.

To 60 year old grandmas, explaining about the hormone osteocalcin, its production and why its presence in the bone is very much required to maintain bone's strength, will definitely provide an important message for them to exercise regularly, which is proven to increase osteocalcin production within the bone.

To emphasize the importance of washing hands to the public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, explaining the science behind how the lipids from soap can disrupt the virus membrane thus killing them, would be effective in reinforcing properly done protocol as simple as washing hand.

So we must really impose them with the question and sense of urgency, "What do you do to take care of your health?", "what vegetables do you eat when you have iron deficiency?", 

There is whole bunch of science behind everyday life, that understanding them a little bit more will definitely make life better. And it is now your job as a scientist to plant this understanding for everyone to easily harvest.


4. Tell a story

To think that every science phenomena would have an impact on the nature, that it is accompanied with visible and measurable changes, that people can observe, feel, and be impacted in some aspect in their life, telling a story is a perfect way of explaining a process or phenomenon in science .

For example, does the story of Dolly the sheep sound familiar to you?

When I first read about Dolly, I picture it as a character of a children's book that simply represents the life of an extraordinary sheep who was the exact copy of the mother sheep of Finn Dorset ewe. Dolly itself is the one who drew me to learning more about genetic cloning, and allowed me to understand the cloning principle which involves inserting the nucleus from the mammary gland cell of the Finn Dorset ewe to the egg of Scottish blackface sheep whose nucleus has been removed. The surrogate mother was a Scottish blackface but Dolly's appearance and genetic composition are exactly the same with the Finn Dorset ewe's. This then let me delve into the world of genetic engineering and all the possible harm and benefit from cloning, by learning from the Dolly's health stories and the diseases she ended up getting before she finally was put to sleep forever.

Telling a story is an entertaining way if informing people about anything you encounter in school, in your research, in the laboratory. And it can show a greater detail of the character you pick (it can be yourself, the animal model, the cells, the molecules) and thus more engaging to other people.


5. Use illustration, diagrams, flow charts or anything graphical!

I remember for my molecular biology class in my undergraduate, I watched numerous McGraw Hill animation videos to help me understand how tRNA binds to ribosome, how DNA repair works and other molecular mechanism that are hard to visualize. Just by reading and listening to lectures were not enough for undergraduate students whose molecular biology experience was probably observing spool of DNA precipitation from a strawberry.

So, a great visual will really help understand a process. That's why in research article it is often encouraged to put a graphical abstract. Commonly, we see in public many banners and posters provided by the department of health to communicate about HIV/AIDS transmission and ways to prevent it; 

Health procedures that are of interest to public such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), cord blood banking, are often found the form of videos or posters. Nowadays with advances in gene editing tools in understanding diseases and therapies, it is definitely crucial to communicate this to public every aspect of its principle, safety, and efficacy. Here is an example of a good illustration from Vox News, a universal online news site, which I think easily explains CRISPR gene editing technique.


Lastly, to everyone, scientists or non-scientists out there, what do you think about these points?

What are other ways you would like for science to be explained?

Do you have your own way or experience in communicating science effectively? Please do not hesitate to share in the comments below! 😀👍



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