Be in the know: knowing when to say “I don’t know”

The recent Brexit vote demonstrates the power of communication and the effect of disseminating misinformation. Sending an effective, accurate message is just as important in science.

Scientists normally communicate through the publication of articles in peer-reviewed journals. But the language used in these articles is often complicated and difficult for a non-specialist to understand. As most research is funded by the taxpayers’ money or through various charities, scientists have an obligation to tell them how their money was used.

According to the latest survey by the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, scientists are amongst one of the most trusted professions. As a scientist, I feel that we ought to maintain the public’s trust by providing truthful findings of research in a simple language. This is the essence of effective science communication.

Science stories are frequently embellished and spun out of context in a world where it’s easier to sell science fictions rather than science facts.

Therein lies the problem for many researchers, as some mainstream media may misquote scientists or even falsify stories. There are some precautions that researchers should take to avoid this miscommunication but sometimes it’s beyond control.

Start spreading your research

Many scientists are media shy and most just focus on lab work and scientific publications. I include myself in this bracket; despite interest in science writing and science communication, I never actively disseminated my work. For scientists, research should be the main focus point. But spreading research through media coverage and science communication can also boost the career of a scientist.

A few months ago I attended the VoYS media workshop, where I learned that Mark Lorch, a biochemist from the University of Hull, had recently been awarded professorship in his respective field. His work on science communication was the tipping factor for his professorship credentials.

For many young researchers, getting involved in science communication often seems the biggest challenge. Factors including lack of confidence, not knowing how to start, or the fear of misinterpretation that could damage one’s academic integrity plays a major part. Though the positives from science communication activities mostly outweigh the negatives. And there are lots of great ways to start.

  • Start your own blog. Many web domains provide a free page on word press format – a great platform to start blogging.
  • Contact your University Press Office. It’s a great way to get your research out to the general media when publishing.
  • Get in touch with your local radio or newspapers. They’re always looking to cover local stories and certainly would welcome friendly local experts.
  • Join the Conversation. It’s a great way to get your name out there. I recently wrote an article for the Conversation, which has been picked up by a few media platforms such as the BBC science focus and IFLScience.
  • Get on Twitter. These days you can find the latest news on any topic very quickly, and likewise spread messages rapidly through the social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. In fact, most communication jobs require you to use social media in a professional context.

Avoiding inaccurate media coverage

It’s important that young scientists know of the pitfalls of dealing with the media. Some people are concerned about giving a recorded interview fearing that the content may be edited before release. There are additional complications with live interviews it may go on a tangent and side-track argument may catch one off guard to say something regretful.

I’ve been advised by experts that these pitfalls may be prevented by writing 2-3 main points that you would like to be delivered through the media. It helps you to remember your message clearly when under pressure. And, these points can be repeated if you have to – a tactic used by politicians all the time. It’s not ideal but it could avoid horrific misinterpretation of your message and keep the interview within the topic.

If it comes to a point when you don’t know the answer to the question then it’s wise to acknowledge that. So, just knowing when to say “I don’t know” is sometimes is effective communication.

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