Do you speak human?
Science outreach is a two-sided coin. A saint and a devil. On one side it explains science to the public and hence increases the general level of knowledge. On the other side a stigma exists in research environments, namely that researchers who do outreach also do less rigorous scientific work. This is known as ‘The Sagan effect’ named after the famous astronomer Carl Edward Sagan, who apart from being an astronomer also was very active in (and had success with) science outreach.
This stigma is a problem as it can prevent some researchers from conveying their field to the public.
But where does it come from? Maybe it comes from the old legacy of science being for the elite, maybe some researchers find it convenient not to engage in public communication – or maybe it is true? Maybe researchers who engage in public outreach really are less scientifically robust than researchers who spend their most of their time problem crushing at the desk?
Let us take a closer look at what succesful outreach requires. In the spirit of good communication let us describe it as a present, so we need some solid content and a beautiful wrapping!
The Big Picture
Content is key. Proper outreach requires content, context and background knowledge. The brave outreach knight needs to have a broad knowledge to be able to pick the relevant bits and knowing what is important and interesting for the public audience. For instance, it makes no sense to talk about the errorbars on the Planck curve, if people do not know what the cosmic microwave background is.
So apart from being specialized in a narrow field of research, a thorough understanding of the big picture, i.e. understanding additional research areas and putting them into context, is also required.
And just to top it off, the topic also needs to be served with relevance to the everyday life of the audience.
The Human Language
Content is worthless if it is not wrapped in a delicate manner. No matter how beautiful and clean mathematics is perceived to be by scientists, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is not the best language for outreach. It is probably the worst. The scientific argumentation and reasoning that have led scientists to the level of knowledge they have today is practically useless in public outreach.
Instead it is necessary rely on analogies and carefully chosen words composed in a clear tone with proper speaking pace that makes the storytelling stand out and worth following. Not too fast and not too slow. Not too complex and not too simple. Mastering this is as undervalued as it is time consuming.
A proper outreach language is basically a translation from mathematics to everyday speech. Who is up for that challenge?
Hard Work Pays Off
Outreach is a layer that is put on top of science. It is not a substitute given by people who only learned the ‘light edition’ of science. On the contrary it requires extra work that eventually pays off for all of us. Without outreach the public would not know what is going on behind the walls of scientific research. At the end of the day, science supported by government funding relies on public understanding. So get out there and tell your story!