‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.
Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.
Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.
Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter.
But the history of science tells a different story.
The first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest continuously-published science journal in the world, was published in March 1665. The first line of the Introduction states:
Whereas there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of philosophical matters, than the communicating to such, as apply their studies and endeavours that way, such things that are discovered or put in practice by others. (Phil Trans R Soc B (1665-1666), 1:1-2)
Translation: The most important thing for advancing science is communicating scientific discoveries and practices to anyone who’s interested in science.
Before that, back in the 12th century, legendary Indian mathematician Bhaskaracharya wrote the Lilavati (or Leelavathi), in which he created stories using mythological characters, animals and spiritual heroes to teach algebra.
In the 18th century, the popular Ladies Diary published mostly riddles and puzzles aimed at teaching mathematics. Teri Perl comments in 1979 that “stereotypes about the inability of women to understand and enjoy mathematics were less strongly believed in the 18th century than they are today”.
The Royal Society was also one of the first ‘learned societies’ to open its doors regularly to the public with lectures and open meetings, to promote science education. Nearly all other scientific and naturalist societies did the same.
Desaguliers travelled across Europe translating Newtonian mechanics for those who couldn’t understand the Principia (which was pretty much everyone except Newton).
Huxley doggedly spread the word on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
There are many more examples, including science teachers and lecturers who do scicomm every day when they step into the classroom.
So no, science communication is not a new strategy to get jobs and dollars, and it’s not about self-promotion. It’s also not about simplifying science, because science isn’t simple. Communicating science is about education and igniting passion for the world around us.
© Manu Saunders 2016