Communicating Science To Non-Scientists

Communicating science effectively to the general public has become more important than ever. When people don't understand the latest science news, it's easy for fake news to spread.

Here are ideas about the best ways to share research with nonscientists. (Start by keeping your message easy to understand!) There are also a few useful resources and help to get started as a science communicator.

Why is Communicating Science Important?

Photos: a man writing while thinking of science (thought bubble with icons of a micro-organism, a microscope, & a flask) & 2 women speaking in public (+ thought bubble showing molecular structure)

Most scientists know how to communicate their discoveries to other scientists.

However, communicating science to the general public requires some different skills.

If scientists don’t make the effort to learn and practice them, non-scientists will fill the gap. (Some will have a political or commercial agenda to promote as well.)  

There can be a communication gap even with the best intentions.

If the information they get isn’t clear, journalists and the interested public may miss some crucial details. If they misunderstand the message they may pass on the misinformation as well.

So, it’s important that information about new discoveries or problems is clear. It needs to be in everyday English, and it needs to highlight the most important points.

In some controversial areas (for example, climate change or vaccination), the basic problem is not a lack of information. As this article in Slate points out, it's necessary to "reframe the issue."

Some of the people who deny what scientists say about climate change are aware of the evidence about it. They may have ideological reasons to question scientists’ conclusions. 

Some may not be willing to consider the scientific consensus until their own values are considered and addressed. It’s important to understand the priorities of the audience. 

"Don’t just keep explaining why climate change is real—explain how climate change will hurt public health or the local economy." 

How is Science Communicated Effectively?

Quick answer: As simply as possible while still being accurate (at least without misrepresenting the facts)

Longer answer: 

1. Consider the audience you want to reach. (What do they already know? What might be unfamiliar or difficult for them?)

2. Respect your audience. Don’t talk down to them! (They may not be informed, but they’re not stupid!)

2. Use general English, not academic or technical language.

3. Keep your explanation short. Stick to a few key points you want your audience to understand. (Three main points are much easier to remember than 5-8!). Tell them why what you’re explaining is important. (Then you can provide links or resources for those who want more background.)

4. When you can, tell a story or use a metaphor to show what you mean.

Examples of Good Science Communication

You can’t get much shorter or more entertaining—& still be accurate—than the TED-Ed science videos. Here are some on the human body. 

Other great examples include TED talks. (See English Detective back issues, especially #31-36. See also EnglishHints’ pages on reading comp. practice (using 2 talks on energy & the environment and on a new understanding of cancer.) 

Here’s a recent example of communicating science (about Covid19) by using the improvisation techniques: 

  • showing empathy, 
  • “making your scene partner look good” (& focusing on the values you share),
  • working together (as a supportive ‘ensemble’) to solve problems, &
  • trying again when you’ve made a mistake,
  • and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. 

(“Giving someone the benefit of the doubt” is an English idiom. It means presuming their intentions were good rather than malicious when there is some doubt about it.) 

Resources for Communicating Science

  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Toolkit (You can reach other pages in the toolkit from the right column. These include: communicating science online, in-person, using video, working with journalists, & mini-workshops.)  Below those articles are other links, to their blog & to various disciplines.) 
  • PLOS blogs (PLOS publishes open access science articles) 

If You Want to Become a Science Communicator

Here’s an excellent article for getting started with communicating science.  I love her suggestion to get a Twitter account and follow the hashtag #scicomm. Her advice is practical and specific, including important steps to take and organizations to look into. 

I would expand and underline her suggestion to read and write—a lot. After you’ve written a blog post or article, don’t forget to check it by reading it aloud. 

Ask yourself ‘How would this sound to my grandma or my cousin who’s an auto mechanic or runs a small business? Take the time to revise it thoroughly—to be as clear and organized as possible.

Then run it through the Hemingway App… (It’s natural for me to write long, complex sentences.) Hemingway has helped me simplify my writing—at least a little.)

And best wishes—we need effective science communicators more than ever!

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P.S. An English Detective reader just sent in several links to free courses if you want to be a science communicator or journalist.

  • The World Federation of Science Journalists is offering a free 10-lesson online course on with best tips on everything from planning and researching stories to interviews, statistics, social media, & reporting on science policy and on controversies. It's available in 10 major languages as well! 
  • MIT offers a course on science communication as part of a free online course series based on their paid courses These are all no registration, no credit, just information that can help you.
  • EdX offers one in Spanish. She says it's no longer active, but that you can access all the materials.

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