Thursday, 28 February 2013

Anecdotes, data and personal stories

I once heard my profession of communications referred to as “the new cultural intermediary”.  It’s a wonderful piece of jargon that I couldn’t possibly use without irony, but it does contain a grain of truth.  As a science communicator I often feel that I am trying to bridge the divide between two distinct cultures when I strive to make research accessible to a wider audience.  Scientists aim to remove the personal element from their work, to make it unbiased.  When they write for publications that will be read by their fellow scientists they like to use the third person: “the experiment was performed thus…” rather than “I did it this way”.  But you will never read a news item that is written in such a style.  It would sound much too flat and unengaging.  Every journalist is looking for an individual’s own account to illustrate their story because it’s the personal that brings communication alive for a reader, listener or viewer.  We want to connect with other human beings and to understand their experience.  I have had many conversations with scientists about this. and I understand very well how presenting research in this way conflicts with their training.  A brilliant comment today on Twitter rang many bells for me: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘data’”.  I have to agree.  If a friend says that they found homeopathy helpful that doesn’t make me believe that it works.  I’m sure we all have friends who say they have found such therapies helpful, but that still doesn’t convince me.  However, if a rigorous clinical trial ever showed that it did have benefits and I had the job of communicating this, I would want to use some case studies and examples of real people to help me to do that.  I do think that there is a difference.  It’s true that this difference is sometimes lost in news stories and that can make scientists fearful of communicating their own research via the media. I would like to think that this is where we “new cultural intermediaries” can play a useful role, albeit one that sometimes feels like walking a tightrope.  Many scientists also shy away from social media, such as blogging and Twitter.  Some may simply dislike the technology but for others it is the idea of such personal communication that is alien and threatening.   However, social media are being embraced increasingly by the younger generations of researchers in both their private and professional lives.  I hope therefore that this new generation will be less fearful about making their research accessible to a wider audience, by allowing the personal to become more prominent in their communication. 

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