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Making Sense of Complexity: Where Communication Meets Science

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Credit: istockphoto.com/GaudiLab

My husband is a stand-up comic. In my mind, the parallel between our professions boils down to one truth: Know your audience.

How do I know that I know my audience? I don’t. The evidence changes all the time, and I make decisions based on the best information I have that day. I work full-time in science communications, and for someone who has wondered whether she could have been a scientist, it’s an ideal proxy for my “what if” career.

Another way my husband’s profession and my own come together is through our love of the BBC show “QI” (short for “Quite Interesting”). The show has a panel of mostly comedians commenting on all types of facts, including scientific facts.

In one episode, the show talked about what is known in academia as the “half-life of facts.” By the time that episode aired in season 11, it was estimated that 60% of facts in its first season were no longer true. It also went on to talk about how medical students are told that about half of what they learn will no longer be considered true in 10–20 years.

Even NASA says, “Everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter, adds up to less than 5% of the universe.”

Although our scope as communicators is focused on understanding humans, brains are one of the most complex systems in our universe and science has only uncovered the “tip of the iceberg” about them at this point.

As communicators, this leads to two very important realities:

  1. What we don’t know far exceeds what we know.
  2. All our “facts” have a shelf life as new evidence is revealed.

If you’re not comfortable with these realities, try another career path. (Or wait 10 years or so to see if they are still realities, given the half-life of facts. Disclaimer: this part is my husband’s advice.)

The definition of evidence is “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.” The available body of facts or information changes all the time — and that change accelerates in a pandemic situation.

Science has always evolved, been messy and had conflicting evidence. And, the “doubt” feature of science is its strength.

Because of the pandemic, science also has risen to reality TV star status this year.

The 3M Global Science Index released in October 2020 has 92% of the world believing “that people’s actions should follow the scientific evidence/advice to contain the spread of COVID-19.” (3M’s online tool also can generate stats specific to your country.)

The level of trust in scientists is a silver lining of an unprecedentedly challenging year. It’s also a gift that will keep on giving by uncovering other future mysteries.

Like science, communication is messy. And as communicators, we are similarly called to make sense of the complexity.

So where do you begin? Here’s what I do:

1. Accept it, you’re a scientist.

Like scientists, all the data we accumulate through our work is just that — data. It’s only when we take our data points to formulate insights that we prove our true value.

Given the attention science has garnered this year, the University of Alberta launched a global class on Coursera focused on science literacy in October.

The lectures helped me reframe my perception of science as not a subject or subjects, but rather a broad body of knowledge. Science is also an approach, and someone who consistently asks questions to take a systematic evidence-based approach that challenges biases is considered a scientist.

As a communicator, the more you apply an evidence-based approach to your work, the clearer your path can become.

2. Seek and foster diversity.

This year has also seen unprecedented attention to the vital need of diversity.

Although so much more still needs to be done, the scientific community has known and encouraged diversity for some time — from trying to attract diverse brains from around the world to their institutions, to encouraging their homegrown talent to learn abroad. More discoveries can happen that way.

Ditto for communicators.

3. Always be willing to be wrong.

We’re approaching the 100-year anniversary of Albert Einstein’s Nobel Prize in physics. Did you know that after a decade of work, it took three years for his theory of relativity to be proven true during the 1919 eclipse by other scientists’ experiments? His theory of general relativity also was proven right again this year.

But his theory just as easily could have been wrong. Presumably, he was OK with that. And with different conditions, it could still be proven wrong. Falsifiability – the capacity to be contradicted by evidence – is what makes science actual science.

One of my favorite quotes from renown communications theorist Marshall McLuhan is “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”

I guarantee at some point you won’t agree with something you said, because you’ll have new evidence that proves it wrong.

4. Repeat.

Critical thinking is essential in science. Similarly, critical thinking is essential in communication. Critical thinking is an active process of thinking and rethinking about things because nothing in our respective environments remains static.

This means that to be an effective communicator, you have to be comfortable with constantly being uncomfortable.

As double Nobel Prize recipient Marie Curie put it, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”

None of it is easy, but by rooting yourself in a science-based approach, you can keep moving forward in a meaningful way.

Diane Bégin

Diane Bégin brings over 20 years’ experience working in the public sector, not-for-profits and in communications/digital agencies with both Canadian and U.S. clients. Diane’s communications expertise includes an evidence-based approach for strategic planning and integration of all forms of paid, earned and owned media — as reflected in a paper published in The Journal of Professional Communication. Her career includes leading the communications during the worst insured disaster in Canadian history, to her present position as director of communications for the Canadian philanthropic arm of a world-leading scientific research institution. Her work has won several industry awards. She also has held many volunteer leadership roles within the communication industry and was a founding instructor for a digital communications certificate at the University of Toronto. She can be found on Twitter @dibegin and at wheretobegin.ca.

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