My colleagues understand me just fine – why do other people have trouble?

If we want to learn to communicate effectively, it is probably a good idea to understand why scientists find it hard to talk to the public and especially to decision makers. We scientists are all good at talking to our major professor, and successively more dismal at communicating as we encounter people with less and less of our training. And it is not because those people are stupid.  That decidedly lame explanation is blamed too often when scientists talk to each other about this problem, but it is neither true nor helpful.  What is true is that magnificently intelligent people may know little about science.

What I think is helpful is to recognize two important factors that affect communication about any richly endowed topic:  jargon and paradigm.  Jargon is required to have rapid, accurate conversations about any specialty topic – in fact we use jargon in our everyday lives, but since we all share that jargon (at least regionally or culturally), we simply call it language.  Paradigm is the shared experience of those in your field, and is perhaps more insidious than jargon because we fail to recognize how extensively shaped we are by the course of our learning and discovery in our specialized area of study.

The words that we use are just a surficial symptom of the detail required for scientific communication.  A deeper issue is all the linked science and understanding that forms the basic foundations of our discipline.  We touched on this complexity in the discussion of the basalts, but the linkages extend even further, to the very edges of our disciplinary knowledge. This network of understanding can be called our paradigm.  

While this word has evolved many meanings in popular culture, the original family of meanings came from Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While a work like Structure may seem far afield from championing science, Kuhn lays out a cogent explanation of the internal workings of scientific communication within a group of like-minded scientific practitioners.  This is an excellent way to therefore understand the lack of communication outside their group, or more broadly, outside their paradigm. Being scientists, I think an excursion into the detailed nature of paradigm will help us understand the mechanics of our inability to communicate outside our field, and with that knowledge, how to communicate broadly.

Kuhn preferred the use of examples to describe paradigm:

By choosing (paradigms), I mean to suggest that some accepted examples of actual scientific practice—examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together—provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research. These are the traditions which the historian describes under such rubrics as ‘Ptolemaic astronomy’ (or ‘Copernican’), ‘Aristotelian dynamics’ (or ‘Newtonian’), ‘corpuscular optics’ (or ‘wave optics’), and so on. The study of paradigms, including many that are far more specialized than those named illustratively above, is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice.

Sensing that he needed to be a little less obscure in his use of the word, and acknowledging that he had used it in multiple ways, Kuhn later expanded his definition. Perhaps he recognized the circular logic that understanding Kuhn’s use of paradigm required that the reader be an adherent to Kuhn’s paradigm.

A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men who share a paradigm…A scientific community consists, on this view, of the practitioners of a scientific specialty. To an extent unparalleled in most other fields, they have undergone similar educations and professional initiations; in the process they have absorbed the same technical literature and drawn many of the same lessons from it.

I am particularly fond of the explanation of paradigm in terms of the problems in the back of textbooks.  In Ian Hacking’s words,

You are inducted (into your paradigm) not by the laws and the theories but by the problems at the ends of the chapters. You have to learn that a group of these problems, seemingly disparate, can be solved by using similar techniques.

After examining a large number of scientific revolutions, Kuhn argues that perception cannot be separated from scientific reality. We only see science in the context of our paradigm. Listeners from outside our fields have a very similar control of their own perception, shaped by their own paradigms. Not only do we not share the same words with those who don’t share our paradigm, we have fundamentally different views of the world.

It is easy to see how someone who grew up in a different country might have a different world view, but why should that happen to scientists?  It’s not that we have a different view of politics or religion – those we share with our families and friends. The problem arises when we think about science.  Our training is so extensive that our brains now see our discipline in fundamentally different ways than does a non-expert, or even an expert in an adjacent field. Kuhn gives the example that a student sees only lines on paper, but a cartographer sees a picture of the terrain.

It is an aside to our efforts to describe communication, but Kuhn’s fascinating realization was that upon the occurrence of a scientific revolution – say when Lavoisier heated the red oxide of mercury and recognized that the oxygen he obtained was a distinct gas from air – practitioners of the new paradigm suddenly see old data in new ways. 

Lavoisier, we said, saw oxygen where Priestley had seen dephlogisticated air and where others had seen nothing at all. In learning to see oxygen, however, Lavoisier also had to change his view of many other more familiar substances. He had, for example, to see a compound ore where Priestley and his contemporaries had seen an elementary earth, and there were other such changes besides. At the very least, as a result of discovering oxygen, Lavoisier saw nature differently. And in the absence of some recourse to that hypothetical fixed nature that he “saw differently,” the principle of economy will urge us to say that after discovering oxygen Lavoisier worked in a different world.

Phenomena that were dismissed as poor experiments, or presumed to be muddled by large error, are seen to be precisely explained by the new paradigm.   Even phenomena that were patently at odds with the old paradigm are now recognized as indicating all along that the old paradigm was wrong.  These had completely escaped the attention of the practitioners of the old paradigm, most of whom, of course, become adherents to the new paradigm and are still the same scientists with the same training.  Why were the results originally missed?  Because in the old paradigm, there was no explanation for them, and the ability to perceive them was severely limited by the structure of the scientific knowledge in the brains of the practitioners. These same people, with a revised general explanation of  their field, are able to see things that escaped them previously.  And that, of course, is the nature of truly notable scientific revolutions, when a new cascade of understanding is suddenly triggered, and an entire discipline changes its perception of itself in a short period of time.

We scientists have evolved these detailed paradigms to systematize our understanding but most people do not have any paradigm for interpreting science, let alone one that we share with them. This lack of an adequate shared paradigm makes it very difficult to communicate, and makes it impossible to communicate with non-scientists at anything like the speed we are accustomed to within our field.  This is the single most important error that we make in championing science.  It may be funny to joke about ‘drinking from a fire hose’ when a presentation is incredibly dense, and we scientists enjoy the challenge of absorbing information at a high rate.  But that metaphor is entirely too apt when applied to a non-scientist.  You can’t drink from a fire hose – almost all the water escapes you, even if you get some.  That is exactly what happens when we fail to realize that our audience does not share our paradigm, and cannot hear what we say in the same way that our colleagues do. They are not stupid, they are uninitiated.  The information simply goes past them, like the undrunk water.

Paradigms can also hinder our ability to communicate by changing the listener’s understanding, relative to what the speaker intended. Generalized paradigms embodied in religious belief or ethical standards of behavior, which by their nature attempt to be all inclusive, shape the public’s perception in ways that the scientist dismisses at his peril. A deeply ethical person may be loathe to pursue a direction because they suspect it will conflict with their principles down the road, without being able to immediately name or evaluate that conflict. If we do not consider this paradigm-based behavior we can completely fail to communicate.

This can be particularly difficult if the listener is technical in some sense other than the topic at hand, but chooses to apply an ethically-derived general paradigm when they are not fully initiated into your technical paradigm. This gap in understanding frustrates many well-meaning interactions, such as between scientists and politicians or non-governmental agencies, where the existence of deeply held, ethically-based beliefs is at the core of the listener’s mental view. Those foundational ideologies are often the reason they want to talk to the scientist, to help their own development of that belief system. Recognize this, and try to adapt to their paradigm in your description, and they will understand more rapidly and completely. They may still not agree with you, but at least it will not be because they missed your message.

Today a prime instance of ethically-based paradigms occurs around genetically modified organisms.  One of the earliest applications of recombinant DNA was in the production of insulin. Bill Young tells the story of the early days of recombinant DNA technology in biotech when Genentech had successfully developed a process for Eli Lilly that replaced pig pancreas extracts. At that time there was no general understanding of the risks of culturing E. coli with altered genes that expressed human insulin.

Bill describes that people thought, “Okay, if you make these organisms capable of making a protein, you might create something dangerous.   What if they get out into the environment and cause unintended problems?” The FDA set up a committee at NIH to review and approve experiments with recombinant technology.  “If you wanted to produce more than 10 liters, you needed special approval. You had to get a recombinant DNA Advisory Committee approval to exceed that scale. And of course, anything we were doing on the process side had to exceed that scale”.  Bill remembers going to those committee meetings and showing how the fermenters were specially designed to make sure that nothing could escape. It took a whole round of simplified communications and visuals to allay a lot of fear and ultimately enable the experiments to go forward. That went on for a number of years.  Nothing bad ever happened, and the guidelines were eventually lifted.

Today many drugs, including new cancer therapies and hormone replacements, are created by E. coli expressing some other species’ genes to create a useful protein, but in those days there was no shared paradigm with which to understand the risks and benefits of the approach. The presence of unknown risks was a major impediment to commercial deployment. In the absence of the shared paradigm that regulators and drug companies have today, the ethical paradigm was predominant in the conversation. The champion of science is sure to encounter this situation, probably multiple times in their career. Embodied as the precautionary principle, this is a common paradigm, and one which experience has shown can be valuable in avoiding disaster.

In a case like this, the audience has a preformed view of the world – it is the champion’s job to supply the information and understanding necessary to reshape their paradigm. Doing so requires the champion to keep a clear view of the fact that his own paradigm needs to be developed, at least partially, in the audience, before they can fully accept the value of the proposed change.  Equivalently, the champion has to recognize that in many instances the audience has a paradigm that either does not include, or actively excludes, the topics you need to discuss with them.  The more extreme the variances between paradigms, the longer it takes to work it out.

And this “normal working out” is indeed an expectation of anyone outside a particular discipline. We do not see the fundamental inconsistencies that drive others to more detail or new paradigms. But to them, it is obvious because of their shared paradigm, and therefore the only thing of consequence at the moment. When we take only the perspective of our own paradigm in discussion, we fail to bring the listener to the point of understanding why we think this topic is compelling and important . The advantage, though, of the paradigm is that it is very amenable to iconic and metaphoric description – it simplifies and unifies a wide set of knowledge. We just have to close the distance between our paradigm, and the listener’s.

Once we recognize the origins of this ‘paradigm offset’ and its insidious and deep effect on our communication with those outside our field, what can we do about it? Once again, we need to be self aware and self correcting. Recognize that you have a paradigm, and that it is shared to lesser and lesser degrees by those further and further from your field. The successful communicator needs to know how to talk about their paradigms at least in four levels; 1) their own discipline, 2) scientists outside their field, 3) the technical public, and of course, 4) the lay public. If you can take a moment to understand your audience ahead of time, either by a web search, or a casual conversation before your formal discussion, you can probably assess in which of these classes your audience belongs.  With that knowledge, and your own awareness of the nature of your paradigm, you can correct your level of discussion to match the audience.

The level of abstraction differs, but it is critical in all cases to consider that you must describe your paradigm, understandably, and never expect an audience who are not your technical colleagues to jump immediately to your level of understanding. By this I mean, to share the deep knowledge that is the basis for your new breakthrough in terms (jargon) that the audience is certain to understand, and with enough supplementary description of the network of science you represent (your paradigm), that the listener both understands and appreciates the importance of your message. And here the onus lies on the champion to begin with the language, and paradigm, of the listener, since it is more likely that the scientist ‘speaks’ the listener’s language than vice versa.  This is by no means ‘dumbing it down’, but rather meeting the listener where they are, and bringing them along with you, to experience the journey that you have already undertaken.