We live in the era of sharing articles after only reading the title (hopefully, you, dear readers of The Peak, don’t follow this trend). How many of us have received a link from loved ones that either seems too unrealistic, comes from a sketchy page, or is outright just a bunch of lies? It’s pretty obvious you didn’t even open the article, Auntie Grace.
Back in 2016, the Science Post, a satirical news publication, published a piece titled “70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.” This article was shared by nearly 46,000 people, but ironically, the Science Post team only wrote an opening paragraph and the rest was just a “Loren lipsum” placeholder. Later that same year, the Columbia University Data Science Institute found that 59% of links shared on social media were never actually clicked. Who would have thought that in the age of “alternative facts” and fake news, most articles are shared completely unread? I know, shocking.
The sad news doesn’t end there. First, I recommend you to search and read Farad Manjoo’s incredibly witty article “You Won’t Finish This Article,” for The Slate, where he explains common reading behaviours of people — like how much time they spent in specific sections of a webpage or how long they keep their window open. He discovered that even when people open articles, not everyone gets all the way to the end: only between 20–40% of readers finish an article. Although this is bound to change and depends on each media outlet and the content they publish, the trend skews toward articles not being paid much attention to. We are sharing so much data without knowing a lot about it!
So what does all this mean for scientific communications to the general public? The result isn’t good. We’ve seen what mistrust in scientific knowledge can do — anti-vaccine movements have caused outbreaks of easily avoidable diseases like measles, whooping cough, and chicken pox to resurface. Some of the most outrageous conspiracy theories have broken public trust in health institutions and knowledge. This is a complex problem that’s bound to have very complex roots, but something we can do is try to bridge the gap between accurate scientific communications and the general public. We can start by writing about science in a way that is easily comprehensible and compelling.
While I don’t have a concrete answer on how to make a scientific story compelling, I will gladly talk about captivating ways scientists have gone beyond the traditional methods of research dissemination.
Let’s start with TikTok, one of the most successful approaches to reach the most people, especially younger audiences:
- Do you like human anatomy? Then here’s an account for you: @instituteofhumananatomy. Be aware though, graphic images of the human body can be seen in this account.
- Do you like Astronomy and all things space? Then enjoy @astroathens content!
- Do you want to learn more about chemistry and ecology? Here you go: @coolchemistryguy.
I could keep going on like this for the rest of the article and meet my word quota by just including the usernames of STEM TikTok creators, but I’ll end it there. The point is even celebrities like Bill Nye have very successful, informative, accounts! While it’s true that a lot of fake and troublesome content can be found on social media platforms, there are tons of creators that actually use these platforms to explain and demonstrate complex scientific topics. Last week I spent close to an hour watching TikToks about astrophysics from an actual NASA engineer! TikTok and other similar social media platforms have the potential to teach us about science without us even noticing (I swear that hour only felt like 15 minutes).
Let’s move now towards podcasts. To be honest, I don’t listen to podcasts much besides Crime and Forensics, but my lack of experience with them is not a reflection of this platform’s accomplishments. Hearing scientists talk about science with their peers or non-experts in a more informal scenario makes it so much easier to actually understand what is happening. Many scientists have the ability to present and talk about very technical data in a way that is easy to digest. Now, imagine if these same scientists were to be in a podcast, talking about their research, I’m certain scientific knowledge would reach far more people and could even potentially renew an interest in STEM for those who are interested in pursuing it. Although podcasts can also be extremely technical and even intimidating, it all depends on the creator and their intentions. I’m almost certain that for every extremely technical podcast, there are at least three others that are far more approachable — they are podcasts, they just keep coming!
Let’s finish with the most traditional one of the list: books. Let me start by asking if you would read a book that is a bit over 300 pages long and that manages to have over 300 citations? Yeah I know, it sounds like a ton of work, but this example is actually the very opposite of it. First, I would like to clarify that when I talk about books as a way to communicate scientific research, I don’t mean your 3,000 page McGraw Hill technical book that will cost you half your monthly rent. I mean books authored directly by scientists that feel closer to non-fiction stories rather than technical books. A couple of weeks ago I finished reading The Genome Odyssey by Dr. Euan Angus Ashley. It talks about how our own individual genetic information has been used in recent years to diagnose and even treat diseases: the most impressive part of it is how easy it is to make a connection and understand the importance of very complex scientific themes. When Dr. Ashley talks about his patients over the years, he talks about how their conditions affect their lifestyles, how his team began the quest to find a diagnosis, and the novelty of their approach towards treating them. It makes you feel like you are not reading about genomics (a word most of us don’t use in our day-to-day vocabulary) but about people’s life stories. By the end of it, you somehow know a lot about the use of genomic data science for medical diagnosis, the definition and expectancy of precision medicine and how it will completely change the medical landscape in the next couple of decades.
When reading and talking about scientific research, sometimes a feeling of dread might come to us as grasping “the big picture” of sometimes very technical subjects can be mentally exhausting. If it’s hard for scientists to understand, just imagine how hard it’s going to be for the general public! There’s a common thread among all of these channels of scientific communication: they’re easy, they’re relatable, and they’re impactful. The way we communicate and interact with day-to-day news has evolved with our usage of communication platforms, but somehow scientific research has been kept behind traditional approaches like peer-reviewed journals which don’t work for the average reader. We should learn from the community of scientific content creators, podcastors, and writers that have taken more modern and creative approaches if we are to break the barriers that limit the spread of scientific knowledge.