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Editorial: Ten years of editorializing

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Editorial: Ten years of editorializing. The Exchange 17(1):2, 6–8.

Imagine my surprise when I started preparations for this issue and discovered I’d completed 10 uninterrupted years as its editor. Wow! Where did the time go? On the whole, it’s been a satisfying 10 years, and the work I’ve put in as editor has been a pleasure. I suppose that must be obvious, otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. Rather than my usual exploration of a specific aspect of science or scientific communication, I thought it might be interesting to look back at my 40 editorials to see what kinds of topics I’ve covered over the years. In no particular order, here are some of the sermons I’ve preached:

Numbers are just the start

Scientists love numbers, but numbers alone are rarely sufficient. Particularly when we’re trying to reach a general audience, the message won’t get through if we forget that facts, and particularly raw statistics, don’t speak for themselves. We must seek ways to make the numbers meaningful to our audience. This is most apparent when we talk about statistical significance: mathematical significance is all very well, but numbers also have to be practically significant (i.e., important). Outliers (things that appear to be statistical anomalies) often seem to be sufficiently rare that they lack practical significance, but sometimes they represent a crucial audience we must reach with our message. Aiming to meet majority needs doesn’t free us of the obligation to consider whether these outliers are also important.

Practical significance can take different and surprising forms. For example, we must make an effort to understand the limits of our knowledge’s scope and applicability for any given audience. Sometimes an idea can only be carried so far, particularly in the case of metaphors; they’re a powerful tool for simplifying and communicating more effectively, but they have clear limits that we must recognize and communicate to our audience.

The social context

Science is a powerful way to analyze our world, and offers a system of checks and balances and peer review that balance the need for conservatism (preserving and protecting what works) with the need for change (when new facts tell us the old understanding is inadequate). No other system of discovery and discourse offers an equally powerful tool for validating and expanding our knowledge. However, the scientific method is not universally persuasive because not everyone is rational, and even the most rational among us has emotions, prejudices, and preconceptions that interfere with their ability to think. Particularly when we must communicate outside the scientific community, we must remember that the tools of rhetoric (persuasion) can be more important than simple logic.

We must particularly beware the temptation to shut our eyes to other ways of seeing the world. Sometimes what we see as useful conservatism becomes atherosclerotic dogma, and a fresh perspective proves the only way to liberate us from that dogma. Recognizing our own passions and enthusiasms, and acknowledging that others have different passions and enthusiasms, lets us find ways to share with others in a way that inspires them to hear and appreciate and respond emotionally to our message. We must find ways to make even the dubious and skeptical (perhaps the majority of modern society) understand why science is interesting and important, and we can’t do it with facts alone.

Science attempts to be ethically neutral, but because it always exists within a human context, both science and our efforts to communicate it have ethical implications. We must always consider how this affects our communication, and take the necessary steps to communicate in an ethical manner. For example, we must consider the social implications of our message, which may lie one or more steps beyond the context we think we’re communicating within. For example, obesity is clearly a health risk, but in over-selling that message, have we inadvertently encouraged or contributed to the modern cult of female anorexia? Evangelism of what we consider important is clearly one of our roles, but we must remember there are consequences whenever we preach.

Words are flawed tools

We must remain aware of the differences among denotation (the dictionary definition), connotation (how that definition has evolved over time), and jargon (the idiosyncratic meaning of a word within a given discourse community). As in the recent case of Pluto losing its status as a planet, a change in terminology that makes good sense within a particular community (in this case, planetary scientists) may make no sense to the wider public. In some cases, it’s doubtful whether we should really try to explain; in others, trying can be very important indeed.

Given that meanings vary, and that some words and phrases are more precise than others, it behooves us to do more than just write clearly: we must also seek ways to error-proof our communication. This relies on a deep understanding of the numerical and other issues I’ve described earlier in this editorial. A particular challenge arises when the high-powered jargon our scientist colleagues use is inappropriate for non-scientist audiences. The solution is to simplify, but this leads to two problems. First, oversimplification can mislead by obscuring the true complexity behind an issue. Second, the repeated need to simplify can mislead us into assuming that our audience is somehow less intelligent than our scientists—or worse yet, that they are less intelligent than we are. Even when we really must simplify, we must resist the urge to “dumb it down” (a phrase I’ve heard many scientists use). Our audiences deserve respect; moreover, some audience members are considerably smarter than we are.

We humans are also flawed

A sad thing about the human brain is that we seem to learn best from errors. Some errors provide powerful insights into ways to do things better, but sometimes they’re just the dreaded and humiliating “learning opportunity”. We must remain aware of the risk of error, but rather than fearing it, we should take advantage of its ability to teach us how to do better next time. Errors are also important in the work of our scientist colleagues, since science is often dangerous to scientists—but it is also dangerous to those who use the results of research and often to unanticipated audiences. Risk analysis and crisis communication are important but often neglected aspects of our work. My review of an important recent book on risk and crisis communication should appear in the May 2010 issue of Technical Communication, and will eventually make its way into this newsletter.

Examining our assumptions—sometimes with help from others less blind to them than we are—is a powerful tool for reducing miscommunication. Our personal view of the world and of any communication situation is inevitably biased, flawed, and vulnerable to our unexamined preconceptions. In this context, our choice of words can have a surprisingly powerful influence on how we think about a situation. For example, scientists tend to think in binary terms, expressing situations as “either... or...”, and we can fall into this trap too when we try to simplify complex situations for an inexpert audience. Reality is far more complex and interesting, with many shades of grey. Though binary dichotomies are useful ways to simplify, we must not let them blind us to the true complexity or its consequences, particularly when we try to quantify the unquantifiable; science emphasizes numbers, but many things (such as emotion or pain) are not easily quantified.

All of this relates to a theme I’ve touched on repeatedly: the notion that other perspectives are essential. However, they are not always to be welcomed. Sometimes the ill-informed, or those with an anti-science agenda, must be met in open verbal combat to prevent dangerous misconceptions from taking hold.

New ways to communicate

Even traditional magazines such as Scientific American (more than 150 years old at this point) are dabbling with new approaches such as interactivity, and have begun moving their communication online to improve dialogue with their readers. Our SIG has an e-mail discussion group (see the last page of the newsletter for details), but we rarely see any messages. How could we change that? Creativity is an important part of who we are and what we do for a living, so I urge you to apply that creativity to finding ways to make our online presence work better for you. Rick Sapir of STC’s Technical Editing SIG has done some impressive things with their Web site by implementing a range of Web 2.0 technologies. If these interest you, write in to suggest how we could use them—or better still, volunteer to implement them for us.

One peril of such technologies is that online information becomes transient. How can we preserve important information that flits past via tweets, e-mail messages, temporary blogs, and the like? Possibly we need to ask the professional archivists to help us find ways to capture and preserve this short-lived knowledge.

Financial pressures forced us to move our newsletter online back in early 2003, and on the whole, the transition went smoothly—except for the many SIG members who think we’ve stopped publishing because they never got the message. That’s both a warning (we should never assume communication has occurred) and a call to action: if you know someone who could benefit from reading this newsletter, please share it with them.

Where possible, I’ve tried to attend STC’s annual conference and bring back interesting tidbits. Though our newsletter is important, you learn so much more from being present in person and having a chance to talk things through. (That’s not a new way to communicate, but rather an old one we’ve forgotten and that deserves to be renewed.) One joy I’ve experienced many times over the years is listening to someone speak passionately about something that might not, at first glance, seem to have much application to my work. But I’ve stopped counting how many times an obscure fact, approach, or reference mentioned in a talk improved my own work. I’ve always appreciated how STC’s different perspective on communication improves my scientific communication. In turn, I try to apply some of science’s perspectives to the challenges faced by other STC members.

Some things remain the same

That’s a whirlwind tour of a 10 years of musing at much greater length. If these themes intrigue you, visit our newsletter archive and read the full articles from which I extracted these nuggets. [A look back: my editorials will also be archived on this site.--GH]

One constant for most of my editorial career has been the inclusion of a range of quotes in the newsletter, not all of which related clearly to a given issue’s articles. Some disdain quotes as a shallow form of pedantry, but I’ve always considered a really good quotation to be one that encapsulates something important in a few pithy words or phrases. By including quotes, I’m not secretly trying to show my erudition. Rather, it’s because the quote revealed something to me or spoke to one of my deep beliefs, and I wanted to share it with you in the hope that it would spark an insight, make you smile, or otherwise make you pause a moment and ponder.

Another thing hasn’t changed much since I began this work, but this one’s less pleasant: it remains an ongoing challenge to find articles—I even wrote an editorial to complain about this back in 2002. Here’s hoping that with a new decade, some of you will be inspired to contribute. It doesn’t have to be much: long, short, or in between, it’s all fine with me. So long as it’s something you’re passionate about and you make an effort to communicate that passion, I’m confident our readers will enjoy it too.

It’s been an interesting 10 years. Here’s hoping the next 10 will be equally enriching.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved