Distil the science, don’t ‘dumb it down’
By Jenni Metcalfe
As a science communicator, I get very annoyed when I hear people urging scientists or communicators to ‘dumb down the science’ so others can understand it.
‘Dumbing’ science down has many dangers, not least that it is very condescending to the people who we are communicating with. Alvin Stone shared his thoughts on this in a recent article about the arrogance of dumbing it down. Alvin concludes his article by saying: “In science communication it’s not about us-and-them it is just about us – all of us”.
Another major danger from ‘dumbing down the science’ is that the science can get oversimplified and distorted. This can convey the wrong message where the science is taken out of context or its benefits are exaggerated.
Instead, I like to distil the essence of the science in a way that extracts the main points and messages without losing the sense and context of the science. It’s like creating a fine perfume.
When I distil the science, I often need to convert a ‘splitter’-style statement from a scientist into something that a journalist or ‘lumper’ might write.
Most scientists are ‘splitters’ in that they want to include as much detail as possible with all the qualifications carefully enunciated.
‘Lumpers’, on the other hand, draw out the main points of relevance to their audience, without exaggerating the possibilities of the research.
Here’s an example:
A splitter describes their research this way:
“A genetic marker that appears to promote the action of disease protection genes in model plants species has been isolated. The precise DNA code has been shown to work in vivo on the action of identified disease-protection genes. The genetic marker has not been tested in glasshouse or field trials to-date.”
A lumper might distil this statement into:
“Scientists have discovered a new gene switch that shows promise in helping plant breeders design disease-resistant plants.”
Chickpea seed varieties, Grains Innovation Park, VIC. Copyright: Econnect Communication