Here’s one effective way to communicate science

Science is very cool. But the way it’s often taught – seemingly arbitrary facts to be memorized or lab procedures to be blindly followed – is less cool. It’s not too surprising that many people decide at some point during their education that science is not for them. Not only do they forgo scientific careers (which is fine – variety is important), but they avoid science in all forms. They skip the science section of newspapers and blogs, comment on the uncharacteristically dry and warm winter without questioning its causes or consequences, and take medications that they’re prescribed without researching the condition they’re being treated for or alternative treatments. In many cases, science that’s relevant to everyday life flies under the radar and people don’t even notice it; in others, they read a sensational headline and run with it or post photos of a seemingly magical dress on all their social media accounts.

And who can blame people for feeling like pursuing scientific information is a waste of time? If their science education brings up painful or boring memories and the rare scientific writing that they do engage with may as well have been written in another language, non-scientists are not going to seek out science in their lives. Exciting more students about science is one way to avoid societal scientific ignorance, but another is to improve the quality of science communication. Efforts to do so are widespread (for example, this summer I’ll be attending a workshop, ComSciCon, whose goal is to improve communication between scientists and their readers), but we still have a lot of work to do.

Nautilus has become one of my favorite sources for science news. At its core, it’s a science blog, but it’s very different from any other science blog I’ve encountered. For one, each issue has a theme, like the current one – Dominoes (subtitle: one thing leads to another). The pieces within an issue do all relate to the theme, but are from seemingly-unconnected domains, resulting in a surprising web of connections among ideas you’ve probably never thought about together (or in isolation, as is often the case for me). Nautilus is also different because there’s a clear effort made to present the content of a post in the format that works most for that post. I recently wrote about the cool experience of learning about how music hijacks our perception of time through an audio tour, consisting of clips and annotations.

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 3.18.57 PM

A recent post about an interview with Helen Fisher, a prominent sex/love/relationship researcher and communicator, also provided a non-traditional reading experience. The post embodied so many goals of science communication. It opened by describing the experience of the interview – an interesting comment Fisher made and the actual apartment that the writers met in. Then, once we can picture the environment that the dialogue took place in, the author told us why we should care about the interview: Fisher makes some provocative claims, such as suggesting that an increase in casual sex has caused our divorce rate to stop increasing – casual sex might lead to long-term marital happiness. The rest of the interview is presented in transcript form, but a video of the interview is the main draw. It’s not posted as one chunk, as most videos are. It always bothers me that I don’t get to experience an online video at my own pace in the way that I experience written materials. The Nautilus interview eliminates this bother by posting Fisher’s responses to each question as individual mini movies that are linked to the questions she’s responding to. Thanks to this format, readers can preview the questions, skip the ones they find less interesting, and listen to the interesting ones in any order they want (all of which I did). This solution is fairly low on complexity, but high on genius. More, please!