Did you get what I meant?

What do you think about the picture above? Is this answer correct or not?  This was a question in a mathematics exam, but you cannot say this answer is totally wrong.  I thought this was good example to explain how the general public and scientists do not always understanding each other.  The student’s answer was different from what teacher expected.  If it is this hard for a teacher to explain what he or she means in an exam, then it should be even
harder for scientists to explain what they mean when they talk to the general public through science journals such as Science, Nature or Genetics.

Dorthy Naking (1994) says that it is important for scientists to describe their research in understandable way to the public audiences.   She described the language geneticists can use to effectively explain their research to a public audience.  She mentioned that she asks three questions to researchers when she describe their research to the public.

  1. What can we learn from the efforts of geneticists to shape the public image of the human genome project?
  2. Do the images promulgated by geneticists inform the public accurately and fairly about this complex field?
  3. How are these images received?

            (Nakin, 1994)

I think these questions help public audiences get the idea about what it is that genomic researchers are doing.  It is hard even for me to understand what the scientists are describing when they use scientific jargons, and I have a background in genetics.   “Genomes” is a popular topic these days based on the fact that I can see many articles about genomes in Science, and Nature journals even thought these journals are not just for audiences who are keen on genomes.  Genomic researchers are especially worried about their public image.  Public image is based on the media and researchers need to use the media to spread their research.  Unfortunately, what the media is attracted to is sometimes not same as the message that researchers wanted them to spread.  Furthermore, what public audiences learn from media is sometimes not same as the message the media is trying to spread.  This means that, what the public learns about science is often very far from the original message that the researchers were trying to say. I think this is a common problem all over the world.

So, here are the questions.

How can we remind scientist that they are using unintelligible words that the public doesn’t understand?  What aspects can help make public understand science?  From these aspects, how can science communicators approach both scientists and the public?

I would like to hear your ideas!


Nelkin,D. (1994). Promotional metaphors and their popular appeal. Public Understanding of Science, 3(1), 25-31

Picutre: Funny exams http://funnyexam.com/

Super thanks to Jean!!


9 comments on “Did you get what I meant?

  1. Scientists should try explain their findings or information to a scientist of another discipline first… I for example would not have a clue what anyone talking about ‘genomes’ and ‘genetics’ are talking about. I’d be able to tell them straight up that I haven’t a clue what they’re saying and they need to go reword it!
    And use visuals! Its way easier to get lost in what someone is saying, but a pictures tells a thousand words!

    • I agree with you Ashfonty. Scientists talks usign their own words, which people who are not familier with those area cannot understand. However, the problem is that many scientists including me do not realise that they are using jargons. So, may be we can remind them the first as the science communicator.
      As you say, a picture tells a thousand words! I think in this case, artists can be one of the science communicators. Do you agree?

      • Keikok- In some situation I definitely agree that artists can be science communicators. However you can’t just get any artist in and expect them to be able to portray your message because if they don’t understand your message then they won’t be able to get it across. You need artists who are also trained in a field of science, who understand your message. UWA has seen the need for scientific artists and has a program called SymbioticA (http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/). Some of the art pieces from this program facilitate learning and do a good job of communicating science. For my anatomy course we had a guest lecture by Hans Arkeveld (one of the members of SymbioticA) and his work has been incredibly helpful. His artwork in on display throughout the corridors of Anatomy and Human Biology if you want to check it out.


  2. I really like how you started this post, with the idea that people don’t always interpret things the way you want them too. I think that this is very true especially with respect to genetics. Pervious posts have talked about about how the media and shows like CSI have made people feel comfortable with the words, DNA and genetics; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand these concepts, only that people think they do. For example if I believe that altering/mutation my DNA could give me super powers (like in Spiderman, or X-man), then I might be really upset when I find out it could actually cause cancer.

    I’m not saying that the average person doesn’t understand the difference between comic books and real life. I think they do. But people don’t necessarily understand the difference between selective breeding and genetically modified crops (see Shaping GM attitudes since 1990). For plant genetics this can cause big problems.

    As for how to make the messages clearer as they get passed down from scientist to the media to the audience, well that is very difficult and I don’t have any answers. Hopefully one day we will figure it out.

    • Thanks Shortfletch.
      Spiderman and X-man are good examples to explain the genetic subjects. Also, I think “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Resident Evil” are good instances. I do agree that people do not have to understand the method of the science but scientist do.
      If the people get interest in the subject from the movie, in that case, do you think movie makers are also science communicator?

  3. That “find x.” exam answer example never fails to crack me up! Haha, thanks Keiko – I think you used that very well in illustrating differing interpretations of someone who is a math “expert” versus one who is not. As you mentioned, the student’s answer, though not mathematically correct, is not completely wrong either. We often think that scientists know what is correct and that the public is dumb for not knowing. This is a bad perception to have, because non-scientists simply have a different knowledge base and think differently from scientists – this is not evidence of stupidity. A science communicator’s job is to understand that, and to show how science is relevant to what people already do know or think (e.g. what happens in their daily lives).

    This brings me to your question “who is a science communicator?” Can artists and movie-makers who depict scientific themes be considered science communicators? I think in order for them to be called science communicators, they need to fulfill at least the following criteria:

    1) Their purpose needs to actually be communicating science, not purely for entertainment or aesthetics.
    2) They need to know and understand (at least to the level that they are pitching it at) the correct science behind what they are communicating.
    3) They act as a bridge between the scientific and non-scientific community. This means they need to know the language and perceptions of both sides so that they can effectively “translate” messages between the two. Good science communicators work closely with both scientists and the community.

    • I agree with you Yveee.
      I think movie makers and artists can also be science communicators but as Madeleine says, they have to understand the message from the scientists to the public audiences to create the effective and understandable movies or pieces.
      However, since it is pretty hard to manage everything by own at once, the job of science communicators is to be a bridge between scientists and the others as you say.
      I am not sure about this, but many people are involved into just one movie (this can be seen in a very long ending in every movies), so may be many science communicators have arleady been involved into them.
      I mean, not everyone creating a movie is science communicator but some of them could be science communicators to make sure that they are not creating a story based on wrong science method. In this case, I agree with your criteria to measure the quality of the science communicators as well as the movies.

  4. To go back to your questions for us Keiko, I like Ashfonty’s idea to have scientists try to explain their research to another scientist with a different background. However, I’d want to be wary of accidentally allowing “understandable to the public” to become “dumbing it down.” Sometimes a specific jargon word is important for properly explaining the concept. I think scientists SHOULD use jargon *if they explain what it means*; that jargon then becomes a word that everyone can understand, and elevates the general knowledge. Imagine if no one had ever taken the time to explain the word “genome”?

    As for making concepts more understandable to non-science people, I think that analogy is key; people learn things by relating the concepts to things they already know. For example, we learned our numbers by counting apples and physics by throwing things. To explain a brand new concept to describe to people without the background, I think we have to put it in terms of familiar ideas.

    I’m excited you guys have started a discussion about who is a science communicator, as that’s part of what my blog post tomorrow will be about! I hope you feel like expanding on this topic a little more. 🙂

  5. I really enjoyed this post.

    There is a saying by Albert Einstein that “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”. Now I, for one, know that if I started dumbing down my degree (nanotechnology), it is quite possible that my grandmother would start getting annoyed with me. She’s intelligent and would rather I explained my terminology than skirted around the issues. I also find that (as a high school tutor), if I can’t explain a subject to my students, then I really don’t understand it myself.

    I agree with Miela’s sentiments that analogy is key. For those of you who were forced to sit through my podcast during peer review, you’d know I love analogy for explaining concepts [for those who didn’t, they were AFL analogies for the factors that affect resistance]. I’m also now looking forward to her post tomorrow!

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