Why Scientists Are Lousy Communicators

Albert Einstein - One of the Great Scientific Communicators

It’s amazing sometimes how certain things come together, but I didn’t realize that I’d run across an article that was so true in so many ways.

In this week’s edition, Newsweek‘s science editor Sharon Begley describes why scientists are their own worst enemies when it comes to communicating their ideas.  And, in my mind, the world is suffering as a result.

From evolutionary biology to climate change, scientists regularly lose the battle for the public’s attention to less correct, but more understandable alternatives.   Darwin presented the inarguable theories of evolutionary biology well over 100 years ago, and society (especially American society) is still arguing over whether it’s an accurate explanation of the world around us.

And as Begley puts it, it’s mainly due to “scientists’ abysmal communication skills.”

Begley mentions how scientists regularly present themselves and their findings with “arrogance” and a “smarter-than-thou condescension”.   Startling factiod from Begley’s article:  The United States is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the percentage of adults who agree that species, including humans, evolved. 

How could this be, unless scientists just don’t care about communicating their findings to others so that they can understand the truth.

(Soapbox alert!…)

I’ve written several articles about the importance of communicating, and it becomes especially important for those in the sciences.  Math and science geeks think presenting is merely for marketers and sales people…  Not so!  If you care to see others believe your research and findings, you have an obligation to learn how to communicate your ideas effectively. 

Here’s the attitude that most scientists take, according to Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard, became a tenured marine biology professor at the University of New Hampshire before changing careers, moving to Hollywood, and entering film school at USC.  Here’s how Begley presents his view:

“Scientists think of themselves as guardians of truth,” he says. “Once they have spewed it out, they feel the burden is on the audience to understand it” and agree.

And I’ll tell you – it is incredibly true!  Many scientists are exactly this way…, and they shouldn’t be.  

Read Begley’s article here, especially if you are a scientist!…

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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