November 29, 2013 | 4
In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle holds that it is impossible to determine both the position and momentum of a particle. Heisenberg’s breakthrough relates to a subject of vital importance to America: the need for better communications practices in the science and technology fields.
Communications is my profession, and I am concerned by what I see. Given the potential that homegrown advances in science and technology hold for the economy and business, it is vital for the public to gain a better understanding of how science increasingly defines the parameters around which we work and live. We who are communications practitioners need to do our part. Enough has been said about scientific ignorance in this country. Improving communications practices in the sciences and technology is not only sound business; it also serves the general public good.
It is important to make a distinction between improved communications and good science writing—of which there are numerous examples, including in Scientific American. Communications practices that place a premium on consistent and compelling messages are broader than just good writing; they cover a broad spectrum that includes audio-visual components, speechwriting, press events, media outreach, internal communications and the management of sensitive issues. Science writers may tell you about what’s coming; we compose the messages to go with things that are coming into your life right now.
How does practicing communications in this space differ from, say, financial, health care, non-profit or consumer products communications? First, the bar is raised even higher when it comes to that core tenet of all good communications: simplifying the complex. Approaching scientific subject matter with humility is important for those in my profession, but so is the recognition of storytelling as a skill unto itself. In other words, one needn’t have a PhD or even be especially well-versed in the scientific fields to be able to identify and explain the importance of a science-related story and its relevance to people’s everyday lives. This kind of storytelling must never rely upon jargon or academic-speak. It serves us well to remind ourselves of Albert Einstein’s remark that “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.”
Second, conversations surrounding science and technology frequently butt heads with religion. Scientific progress and religious belief, however, need not be mutually exclusive. Many scientists are respectful of religion and some are devout. We all know Einstein’s famous quip, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”
The third and most challenging way in which science and technology communications differ from communications practices in other fields brings us back to the Uncertainty Principle. In other realms, superior communications professionals work side-by-side with clients to craft consistent and compelling messages and documents that concern finite situations that occur in specific spaces and points in time. They may, for example, draft a press release to announce a company acquisition, a statement explaining a C-level executive succession or an internal communications piece that describes to company employees the importance of a new product or service launch. In each of those cases, our job is to explain what has happened in terms that are as concrete and definitive as possible.
Messaging around science and technology, however, is a different story, because science rarely involves certainty. Rather, science is a quest for objective truth that might never achieve a final, definitive outcome. Given that science is an ever-unfolding story in which the goal posts keep moving—and that today’s vouchsafed hypothesis might be modified six months from now—crafting solid messaging around uncertainty becomes a unique communications challenge. The question for communications professionals becomes: How can good science and technology communications help prepare various audiences to live with something as troubling as uncertainty?
The stakes are high. In the absence of strong communications, complex stories that require nuance and insight risk poor reporting that can result in a distorted public discourse. A grounded airplane fleet suffering from malfunctioning batteries, a “superstorm” that raises grave concerns about climate change, a European supercollider that raises worries about terrestrial black holes, controversy surrounding potential use of stem cells in treating disease—each of these might be an example of a story in need of careful, honest articulation. Good communications could help to inoculate against undue fear and conflict through a better comprehension of scientific issues that slices through the fog of misunderstanding and makes reporting around science less vulnerable to ad hominem or Luddite arguments and attacks.
If historically there had existed a kind of willful neglect of basic communications functions in the science and tech fields—due in part, perhaps, to academics talking to audiences of other academics—that is gradually beginning to recede. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) now offers coursework designed to develop students’ abilities to communicate science more effectively. Medical schools have for years taught fledgling physicians about the importance of having a compassionate bedside manner and practicing strong communications skills.
Improved science communications practices are a necessity because we live in a world that is immersed in technology. From iPads to transatlantic flight, from laser eye surgery to microwaving popcorn, we swim in streams of everyday magic that few of us have bothered to investigate or understand. It is imperative that communications professionals bring all of their expertise to bear upon this all-important frontier and to remember, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
When considering how to improve communications around the sciences we must never forget that language itself is a rarefied form of technology—grammar and punctuation a kind of original programming code. Good, clear storytelling—the foundation of any effective strategic communications campaign—speaks to and fulfills an ancient human need, no matter what it might describe.