Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frameworks for science communication

Well, I did it again: flurry of posting followed by week of silence. This assistant professor gig is pretty crazy, y'all. I am in love with it though, so I don't mind.

I've been ruminating on communication of scientific ideas. I've been watching a number of people at various levels struggle with and/or succeed/fail at communicating about science. I think there haven't been many good ways to teach the philosophy of science communication, and as a result most students have to kind of learn it piecemeal by having their work critiqued obliquely by others (oblique critique!) without a lot of discussion of HOW to build a scientific argument either in writing or in an oral presentation (for funding, for presentation, for teaching, for publication or other description of work done).

How do I know what I know about how to put together these things? How can I pass that along to my students and mentees? How can I get them to improve their work products in a way that also improves their abilities (and doesn't just mean I do their damn jobs for them)? How do I help them build their own mental framework from which to better communicate their understanding of, use of and work in science?

On my long drive in this morning, I drew this picture in my head of how I do this:






















This so-called 'fiction' is not really a fiction exactly. It's more a communicative, rhetorical-type device related to the "strawman" strategy. Here's the deal: you build an argument by assembling a bunch of parts. These parts need to cover certain bases:
  • the whats: what is the problem?
  • The whys and wherefores: importance, difficulty.
  • The hows: how do people do it and how will I do it?
The key strategic issue is to lay those parts out smoothly and creatively. You always want to start with the whats, whys and wherefores--the description of the issue and why people should care about it. Then you want to describe what is known about it and how that knowledge was obtained.

If you line these pieces up right, you should leave a hole in the middle that you, and your reader/listener, can CLEARLY see the shape of: this makes your hypothesis/aim/goal jump right out for you and them! Now, you describe the shape of that hypothesis/aim/goal (which remains the hole), describe YOUR approach to it and show how your approach will perfectly fit that hole, highlighting all the unique, novel features of what YOU have to bring to it. BINGO: instant solid argument.

You can emphasize things like "Look at this special dent my approach makes into that missing piece on its importance to humanity!" and "My novel technology/model system will fill SIGNIFICANT gaps left by others and the problems with how people have been doing this!" These are those little touches that make you more special, that make people go "Wow, this person knows what they are talking about and has a cool idea!" rather than, "Huh?" or "Who even cares about this kind of widget?"

You can use the same framework to describe work in the past tense, too--rather than what you WILL bring to the hypothesis hole, you describe what you DID bring to it. You always leave room for little bumps you missed and spaces that aren't QUITE filled in your shape (future work, caveats, etc.) because NOBODY'S PERFECT AND NO QUESTION EVER GETS FULLY ANSWERED. That's science, you're not god(s).

Not only that, but this framework structure works at all the layers of the document/presentation you are putting together: you can map the whole shape of the overall argument this way, and you can break down each little sub-argument, section and paragraph into this kind of a puzzle. IT'S JUST LIKE FRACTALS!!! My favorite thing. If you know how to mini-ify your concepts and arguments as communication modules, you can build ANY kind of argument you want by just knowing where to go get some parts!! VOILA!

5 comments:

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post, and I LOVE your diagram!

Ambivalent Academic said...

That diagram and your explanation of how to do it right are teh awsum!

Some people seem to get how to do this without being taught, as if it's just common sense...I tend to think I'm one of them but it's always great to have someone explain it so clearly - reminds me on areas I need to focus on for my next talk.

There are plenty of other people for whom this is clearly not common sense and I hope that they read your post...several times over!

Arlenna said...

Haha thanks. Yes, those are the people who inspired me to write this up. I am going to use this at lab meeting, and also maybe in grad student grantwriting class someday.

joshua said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
PhizzleDizzle said...

AA pointed me to this - and it's great - I sort of forgot about the 'what other people have done' block, now i'm addressing it.

I'm going to add you to my reader :), I can't let useful info like this pass me by again!