What should be taught in science communication courses?

By Grant Jacobs 26/01/2012 6

(An invitation to discussion by way of ruminative thoughts inspired by a presentation on science communication. Do share your thoughts!)

A few nights ago I received via twitter a link to a presentation [PDF file] by Prof. Lloyd Davis, Head of the Centre for Science Communication (CSC) at the University of Otago, New Zealand, titled Science Communication: a ’Down Under’ Perspective.

The University of Otago is the local university. As you might expect where I am able to I attend seminars held at the CSC, so naturally I was curious to read what Lloyd Davis had to say.

Prof. Davis’ presentation discusses the communication aspects, presenting three areas he identifies ’as providing the essential framework for any course teaching science communication’:

  1. Story telling – the art of using narrative.
  2. Engaging – that mix of lede, design, etc., that draws readers in. (On-line this might be extended to include ‘reach’  through social media.)
  3. Enhancing creativity – think of creative techniques in non-fiction, film-making or internet-hosted media.

I’d like to use this as an excuse to consider non-communication aspects that might also be a part of science communication courses, especially those relating to gathering of sound subject material.[1] Or at least ruminate on them. I can’t do much more than ruminate given that I’m not a specialist in science communication. (I’m leaving aside practical skills such as interviewing; readers are welcome to suggest these in the comments.)

In particular, I want to mention critical analysis.

We might break gathering of subject material into two components: understanding and critical thinking, the former being about domain knowledge and the latter critical examination of arguments.

My emphasis here is on critical analysis but we need to deal with domain knowledge first.

Science communication courses aren’t going to teach specific areas of science, but domain knowledge is part of the larger process of gathering the background for a story.

Domain knowledge

It’s an odd (interesting, quirky) feature of science writing that a large fraction of, if not the majority of, the people who are are judging and/or packaging research science for a non-scientist audience have never done research science.

My impression is that most science communication courses are Masters-level courses. I imagine not all require a full undergraduate science degree as a prerequisite. Furthermore, there is a substantial difference between undergraduate (taught) courses and research science.

A few souls do very well without formal qualifications in the field they cover. I would suggest, however, that a characteristic of these people is the huge efforts they have put into getting the background of an area on their own.[2]

I don’t see that there is any shortcut to needing domain knowledge to be good in a field, or career, and I don’t think science writing is any exception in this.

To communicate accurately in their own words, communicators have come to grips with the larger discipline (biology, physics) and an understanding of the specific subject to a sufficient level. (Either that, or be very dependent on others checking their work.)

A potentially vexed question that might be raised is if science communication courses should be limited to those with (at least) undergraduate degrees in science. (Or perhaps level-2 papers in science.)

My own thoughts–at this point in time–are that entry requirements can be relaxed provided the material presented by students is firmly judged on its scientific soundness (accuracy) as well its communication merits.

Those without a formal background in science may have to work harder covering the background but then they’re going to have to out in the field too, if they are to maintain a high standard. I don’t think this assessment of scientific accuracy should be skipped or treated forgivingly. Better I think to ask of students a high standard of scientific accuracy and encourage them to take that with them.[3]

While entry criteria might in this way be swopped for assessment, one thing that to my mind cannot be set aside as easily is critical thinking.

Strong rational examination of arguments

There is some debate (online at least) as to if science journalists are ‘supposed’ to critique a subject matter as oppose to ‘merely’ report it.

Regardless of the stance taken on this, the communicator must be able to judge if the subject matter is sound. Similarly, the writer should be able to judge the soundness of their own statements.

Domain knowledge helps.

So does being able to critically examine arguments presented.

Critical thinking can be taught through examining logical arguments and the various fallacies that can arise from wayward reasoning.

There isn’t a lot to say about this not because it is not important but because it is, to me, so obvious. If you can’t reason soundly you’re going to struggle to gather and present sound material.

Biases can be revealed by careful attention to what people are saying. Anyone who has spend time reading or listening to advocates should be familiar with fallacies such as appeals to popularity or authority. Similar care to reasoning can be applied to formal statements that lack straight-forward fallacies but contain logical ’jumps’ or omissions.

Many (most?) scientists have not been taught this formally, but have acquired it over a long period of time. Seeing as students in science communication courses are generally unlikely to have this background–see the previous section on domain knowledge–and how essential is it is to quality science coverage, should this be an essential taught part of science communication courses?

I think so.

Critical analysis is worth being a core part of any course, never mind science communication courses, something I have argued for elsewhere as have others on this forum.[4] In the case of a science communication course these would be tied in with the general nature of scientific analysis and ideally its history.

Other elements (for the sake of completeness)

There is, of course, much more to science communication courses. One obvious element not mentioned are practical skills needed for gathering material (interviewing skills, etc.) Two more relating specifically to science, as opposed to general communication skills, might be:

Basic science background[5]

I’ve not mentioned teaching the basics of science. Understanding what is meant by ‘evidence’, ‘theory’ and whatnot in science, for example. The basic approaches to testing hypotheses. Straying over to practical skills – basic statistics, presenting and reading graphs. The list goes on.

History of science

I personally like the idea of teaching why things are as they are, rather than just what the current approach is. By way of example, the current approach that is loosely called the scientific method hasn’t always been around; examining how and why this came to be used can be instructive. Similarly history can inform us of the human aspects of science and the nature of the present-day institutions.

Those interested in the history of science might enjoy this discussion between Eric Johnson and Tom Levenson.

Closing thoughts

Prof. Davis’ presentation focuses on communication aspects of science communication. Among the non-communication aspect aspects, I feel assessment of the scientific soundness of what is presented and teaching critical analysis is important.

I’d be interested in readers thoughts. What do they think are important elements in a science communication course?


Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on science communication.

My argument assumes that the communicators are to carry the weight of creating sound material largely on their own. One element missing in this are editors or producers; something for another time.

1. These elements are present in the Otago science communication course, e.g. it includes critical thinking.

2. Even some of the best science writers, whatever their backgrounds, get specifics wrong from time to time. To spare a long exposition on this, checking statements against (qualified) sources is a good idea in my opinion. There’s been plenty of debate about this online; see at David Kroll’s take as directed, for example, and follow-ons elsewhere.

3. There is a distinction here between analogies that might not quite be right–that much is often forgivable–and factual background material. Frank errors in the latter are poor efforts. Leaving out things that ought to have been considered should be noted, too, esp. as this might reflect not having backgrounded the material properly.

4. In particular, it has been suggested that this be introduced at a high school level.

5. These elements are, of course, essential but teaching them in part reflects on admission qualifications, students with some general science background would (should!) be familiar with these.

Other articles on Code for life:

A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking

Teaching kids critical thinking

How did you learn to critique the scientific literature?

Should we teach examples of scientists falling for unscientific practices?

Science, truth without certainty

6 Responses to “What should be taught in science communication courses?”

  • Copying a few replies over from twitter (in chronological order according to TweetMeme):

    @cassiopeia789 says: Lots of science, as well as lots of comm! >> What should be taught on a science communication course? http://t.co/9CL85cov (via @sciblogsnz)

    @JTspartz says: Narrative is key. MT @bioinfotools: What should be included in sci comm courses? An invitation to discussion – http://t.co/JOMqr8bp

    @JTspartz says: @bioinfotools yes, agreed. a working knowledge of the science beneath (within) the “story” is fundamental.

  • I’d suggest a few lessons in critiquing some primary research papers would benefit science writers.
    One of the most important lessons I had as an undergrad was to learn “how to read a scientific paper”.
    Pretty simple stuff I thought… check out the abstract, rush to the results & discussion, then prepare a simple precis of the main points I’d digested.
    Fortunately, my plant physiology lecturers realised that students needed to be instructed in how to pull a paper to bits….
    check out that Methods section…… is all the information there for someone to repeat the study exactly?
    check out the Results….. what do they show? what don’t they show?
    check out that Discussion section….. and remember all those assumptions, provisos, caveats that were made in the Introduction……. and if you’ve got time… check out some of the References.

    The other piece of advice I’d offer to budding science writers is to study some of the examples of “Fads and fallicies in the name of science” by Martin Gardner (yep, written over 60 years ago).

    • Hi Maggy,

      Perhaps part of this is that many science communication courses are working with students who are not post-graduate research students? A lot of undergraduate teaching is from textbooks, rather than the primary research literature, at least until later parts of their degrees. By contrast, a far bit of science writing is attempting to report on the “latest” from the research literature. A deeper aspect to this is that textbook science is mostly science that has already passed the to-and-fro of reproducing the work or confirming it independently from other studies and few textbooks really dissect that. By contract, reporting on ‘initial claims’ in the literature properly needs a more critical eye.

      (One ‘textbook’ I like is Dickerson’s Present at the flood, which covers the papers and personalities.)

      You’re right that fads and fallacies aren’t new! It’s interesting (and sometimes a bit depressing) to see the recurring themes. (Off-topic, I have a few older ‘popular’ science books myself, such as (Julian) Huxley’s Dare What I Think from the 1930s, but none of Gardner’s.)

      While I’m writing, I have written previously on learning to write a paper, leading from an on-line discussion starting “It boggles the mind how few people seem to have read any scientific papers before attempting to write their own!”. When I look back at the comments below, they’re interesting – you might like them too:


  • I followed through a few of your links and arrived at….

    Well, that’s essential stuff for any science communicator to become familiar with.

    Especially the newbies….still in awe of Professor Blahblah and desperate to be the first to communicate some fascinating, world-shattering result to the great unwashed.

    I’m always reminded of magician James Randi’s view on scientists… That they are the easiest folks to fool, for they are not trained to suspect deception.

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