Big Data Showdown

One of the toughest parts of collaborative science is communication across disciplines. I’ve had many (generally initial) conversations with bench biologists, clinicians, and sometimes others that go approximately like:

“So, tell me what you can do with my data.”

“OK- tell me what questions you’re asking.”

“Um,.. that kinda depends on what you can do with it.”

“Well, that kinda depends on what you’re interested in…”

And this continues.

But the great part- the part about it that I really love- is that given two interested parties you’ll sometimes work to a point of mutual understanding, figuring out the borders and potential of each other’s skills and knowledge. And you generally work out a way of communicating that suits both sides and (mostly) works to get the job done. This is really when you start to hit the point of synergistic collaboration- and also, sadly, usually about the time you run out of funding to do the research.

Us versus them in science communication

This Tweet got me thinking about my grandfather. Gideon Kramer was a great thinker who read widely and was very spiritual and philosophical. He also placed a great emphasis on science, but did not consider himself to be a scientist. When he was alive he would continually challenge me to make my science more approachable by a broader audience. He still does. He once suggested that all scientists should publish a lay version of every technical paper they published so that he (and, of course, others who are interested in science but don’t have the full background) could understand. Something I’m still interested in doing- but totally challenged by. How do you communicate a large amount of assumed knowledge in a way that’s accessible to everyone? He also suggested that I could write a scientific paper not in prose, but in poetry- an idea that is pretty antitheitic to the standard by-the-book scientific paper. Also a challenge I’m still wrestling with.

To a certain extent this is the role that scientific journalism plays – distilling the essence of a scientific study down to easily readable terms and placing it in the broader context of the field and previous research. Some journals (PLoS journals, for example) now require a synopsis of the papers to be provided that will be accessible to a wider audience. I believe for exactly this purpose. This is a more general problem since it does not just pertain to the scientist-layperson  divide, but also within the sciences. I am highly educated. I spent something like 22 years of my life being formally educated in one form or another- and another five in post-doctoarl training, and I’m still educating myself. The problem is, I, like every other scientist I know, have a pretty narrow focus of what I know and what I’m comfortable with. I can’t read physics papers, or chemistry papers, or neuroscience papers, and immediately know what the important parts are or even how to interpret the results from sometimes highly specialized methods of exploring the universe around us. I’m essentially in the same boat as a ‘layperson’ when reading and evaluating these kinds of papers. Of course, just knowing the scientific method and how to read a technical paper in general helps immensely.

So, back to the point of the Tweet: this is certainly a problem. The “them versus us” issues is alive and well. On one side we consider scientists to be living in ivory towers, isolated and above everyone else- and maybe being disconnected from real-world problems (who can support research on duck mating habits?). On the other side we consider laypeople to be slack jawed ignoramuses ready to lay aside the wealth of scientific evidence available for the extremely important issues that confront our world (why don’t people see what a problem the emergence of antibiotic resistance is?). So the divide is as real as we choose to make it.

But here’s the thing: the divide is not nearly as pronounced as we (either side) would seem to make it out. There are plenty of “laypeople” who understand as much, or more, about physics, psychology, or soil ecology, than I do. And there are plenty of “scientists” who think about many things: economics, politics, gender equality issues, and are thought leaders in these areas. There is a great need for better communication though- perhaps through Twitter or similar social media. In fact, there have been several recent social media events that have challenged these boundaries, making science and the process of doing science more real to the general public. I’m talking about the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag (as well as several other similar events), which was criticized for laying things too bare in places, but that I think was a boon to this relationship.

We are human. We make human mistakes. We think about human problems. We do not exist in an ivory tower. We are also athletes, foodies, hipsters, enthusiasts, wives, husbands, partners, parents, lovers, artists, humorists, and trolls. I can only think, and hope, that this will bring down walls rather than putting up more of them.