Give it To Me Straight

Why the public will adopt the conclusions of a Facebook post over those of your completely factual, well-reasoned academic paper and how better communication can help you do something about it.

What the double blind placebo cohort?!

It’s really hard for the average person to understand an academic paper. Ben Goldacre, an epidemiologist, put it nicely in his Ted Talk called “Battling bad science” when he discussed how shady research practices are hidden in studies:

“All of these things are happening in plain sight, and they’re all protected by a force field of tediousness.”

Mr. Goldacre was talking about bad studies, but the same could be said for exemplary studies; valuable research findings are hidden from the public by the tediousness of their presentation.

As an individual who’s not a scientist, if you wanted to really know about the very latest discoveries in science, you’d have to try to pick your way through scientific papers written in language like, “Staging confirmed the presence of islet-cell antibodies, measured insulin antibodies, assessed the first-phase insulin response to intravenous glucose, assessed oral glucose tolerance, and determined the presence or absence of HLA-DQA1*0102,DQB1*0602, a protective haplotype, the presence of which excluded subjects from further participation” (source), which probably makes perfect sense to someone, but not to you. You’d have to stretch your reading comprehension and your imagination in hopes of understanding what’s being said…and that’s if you’re a really good reader. If you’re not that great at reading, it’ll be a frustrating experience, to say the least.

And it shouldn’t be that way.

At the end of a long shift as hostess at the local diner, a single mom of three has little time, energy, or desire to wade through pages and pages of tedious explanations of the latest study to learn what research has found about how to be healthy, no matter how informative it might be. And it’s not her job. She has other stuff to do, like do the best work she can at her job, raise her kids well, and make the best choices she can for the health of her family. It’s the health research community’s job to make it easier for her to do these things by sharing what they’ve learned. Otherwise, what’s the point of all this? Right now, the media is doing this job…pretty badly (just Google “bad science reporting”). And these bad articles are really easy to share on Facebook…yikes.

Aww poor Pluto…you’ll always be a planet to me.

There’s another important part of the whole equation here: public understanding of the research process. The public gets frustrated with different, often contradictory recommendations constantly being reported. When the solid foundation of knowledge they thought they were operating from is dissolved, they respond with frustration: “I thought we knew this already. Can I drink coffee or not? Why did you teach me Pluto was a planet if it’s not now?” And worse, “I can’t believe anything science says because they always find out later that they were wrong.”

Researchers understand that the nature of scientific inquiry means that we’re always refining our understanding. It’s part of the process. The public may or may not understand that this is how the whole thing works; that it’s okay for it to work this way; that a change doesn’t necessarily mean we were wrong (although sometimes it does and we should be able to admit that when it happens).

Okay back seat driver, what are you gonna do about it?

Here is what I suggest we all should do:

1. Use your resources to talk directly to people
It should be common practice to put out a companion dissemination piece for the public with every academic paper. Maybe just a one-page summary of the key points and what they mean for everyday life. Or better yet, what about a video on YouTube or an easily-sharable image for Facebook? This practice would go a long way toward helping the public accurately understand the latest developments in science. I am far from the only person on this soapbox. See this YouTube channel by Dr. Aaron Carol or this blog by Dr. Nerissa Bauer. This may be a huge step for some scientists, but, remember, you don’t have to do it alone. There are many people out there who specialize in communicating complex information in ways that are engaging and effective (communication designers, illustrators, videographers, photographers…). Partner with these people.

2. Teach people how to look at research design in a paper
Maybe we need to teach the public how to understand study results as they are presented in a paper. Or to be skeptical of headlines about studies in the first place. Maybe we should put together a quick explanation of the different types of studies and what kinds of conclusions should (and shouldn’t) be drawn from them. Even better, maybe we need to take research papers and annotate them for the public. Maybe there should be a public scientific journal that still has a rigorous review process but where findings are presented in a more accessible format for the general public.

3. Write so people have the best chance of understanding you
Remember that when you’re putting together an academic paper, what you’re doing is writing, and writing has well-established best practices. Even with a complicated topic and a lot of big words, there are many writing choices you can make to ensure that your content is easier to absorb. For more, check out this article by George Gopen and Judith Swan in American Scientist.

I’ll leave you with this

The general public isn’t clicking on internet health articles because they love being bombarded by ads about weird tricks that help flabby bellies—they’re genuinely curious about the world. People want to know how close we are to curing leukemia or what they can do to fight against their family history of diabetes or, once and for all, whether or not coffee is okay to drink. Until we make that knowledge truly accessible to them, they have to click-bait themselves to health “information,” get frustrated by the conflicting content, and settle for finding out what the cast of Saved by the Bell is doing now—and that doesn’t really help anyone.