A great exercise in science communication

Every scientist has had that moment at a friend or family gathering where someone asks, “So, what do you do?”. It is inevitably followed by an awkward silence or, even better, two minutes of: “Well, it’s like this…I mean, what I want to know is…well, you know how when…”. The problem is, scientists spend a lot of time talking to other scientists. And sometimes we forget how to talk to other people.

It shouldn’t be this way. As scientists, we want to create knowledge and then share that knowledge with people who can use it. But how can we do that if we can’t explain what we know in a way that others can understand? This is why I was so excited when I saw tweets by Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill)*, pointing to a site called “THE UP-GOER FIVE TEXT EDITOR”. The site, inspired by this brilliant cartoon on xkcd, challenges people to explain complicated topics using only the 1000 most common English words. If it sounds easy, that’s because you haven’t seen the list – or rather, what isn’t on it. The list does not include words like, ‘science’, ‘teach’**, or ‘information’. Ignoring for the moment what it says about English-speaking societies when these words are not included but certain expletives are, the limited words available makes this task very difficult. As a neuroscientist, the fact that words like ‘neuron’, ‘muscle’, ‘message’, or ‘signal’ are not on the list makes things even trickier. Describing your research under these conditions requires some creativity and some thinking about how you would view the world if you weren’t a formally trained scientist. This can only be healthy. So, I decided to give it a try.

First, just out of curiosity, I pasted the abstract of my latest manuscript into the text box. It has a detector that lists in red all the words you have used that are “non-permitted” (not on the list). This was the result:


That’s a lot of red.  In fact, there are whole sentences in which the only permitted words are trivial ones like ‘and’, ‘as’, or ‘the’. And yet this abstract is typical of many published neuroscience articles with respect to the language that it uses. We claim that we’re sharing our science when we publish articles, but how widely are we really sharing it when it’s written in terms only those in certain academic circles can understand?

Sometimes we do better at communicating our science when not in the pages of journals. Recently, I gave a talk at a university to a mixed audience of engineers, physicists, and biologists. I provided an abstract for the talk:

Rhythmic motor behaviors, such as respiration and locomotion, are vital to animal survival, and controlled by networks of neurons whose collective activity ultimately coordinates muscle contractions. The extent to which the timing of muscle contractions is shaped by the properties of single neurons in such networks is an open question and hotly debated. The work presented demonstrates that changing one property, specifically potassium channel expression, in motor neurons can alter the timing of locomotor behavior.

It’s better than the first abstract I pasted into the text editor, but it’s still fairly technical and includes many words not in the list of 1000. Then I reviewed the description of my research on my website and realized things were even worse there. I thought I was communicating well, but surrounded by scientists (including one at home), jargon had become habit and I realized I was self-selecting my audience. This isn’t what outreach should be about. I don’t just want to speak to other neuroscientists. I want to share ideas with people far beyond my field, outside of science. To do this, I have to find a common language. So, I deleted everything I had in the text editor and started from scratch. After some swearing and laughter, I finally came up with this:

I study how the brain controls the way the body moves, like when you breathe or walk. Cells in your brain talk to each other, telling their friends when to get excited or not excited. Other cells hear their friends talking and in turn tell parts of the body when to move and when to stop moving. I am interested in knowing what happens in between those cells talking and your body moving. Do cells just pass on what they hear from others without changing it? Or, are some cells able to change the conversation? Cells talk in different ways when doors in their walls open and allow little pieces of what’s inside or around them to come and go. I change how many of these doors are in the cells and then listen in on their conversations while watching how the animal’s body moves. Learning how the brain controls the body can help us to know what to do when people get sick or hurt and some parts of the brain can no longer talk to parts of the body the way they used to.

I joked on Twitter that I was banging my head at not being able to use the word ‘neuron’, but this wasn’t that hard to overcome. Neurons are just cells in your brain. (I was lucky and pleasantly surprised that both ‘cell’ and ‘brain’ are on the list.) We in neuroscience tend to think of these cells as inherently special, but why? Because they fire action potentials? So do other cells in your body, including ones in your heart and pancreas. Because they connect with other cells and send messages to each other? Again, so do cells in your heart and your gut, among others. Because they are the cells that allow us to form and store memories, reason logically, create art and music and poetry? Sure, in part, but there are many cells involved in complex functions of the brain, some of which are not neurons. For example, glial cells – non-neuronal cells which outnumber neurons and are often described merely as support cells – are getting increasing attention for the role they play in processes that underlie the formation of memories. Don’t get me wrong, I love neurons. But at the end of the day, it helps scientists and non-scientists alike to remember that they are just one type of cell in the brain.

The next problem I faced was how to tackle the description of synaptic transmission. Often, the definition neuroscientists give sounds something like, “Neurons communicate across specialized structures composed of several proteins that allow chemical transmitters to be released from one neuron and received by another.” All the words in red are not included in the 1000. Take them away, and you’re left with a nonsensical definition. As scientists, we often want to be precise and include many of the details we know about a process. But is it really necessary to talk about proteins and chemical transmitters? Ultimately, the message you want the non-scientist to walk away with is simple: some cells in the brain have ways of “talking” to cells around them. Of course, this is an anthropomorphism, but it gets the main point across in a way a broad audience can understand. Details can come later, if needed.

Finally, to the part I found the most difficult: describing an ion channel. I would normally have written, “Ion channels are proteins in the cell membrane that allow charged molecules to enter or leave the cell.” Again, the words in red are not on the list. I had to come up with replacement terms. The membrane of a cell can be thought of as wall that prevents certain things from going in or coming out of the cell. At first, I thought I could describe ion channels as holes in the wall, but the word ‘hole’ is also not permitted (momentary swearing). But then I thought some more and realized that ‘hole’ wasn’t the best word anyway. A hole implies a passage that is open all the time. Many ion channels (in particular, the ones I study) aren’t like this. They are more like doors, which open only when the right key is used. The key may be a change in the electrical potential of the cell, or a specific chemical, and only when that key opens the door can ions pass. The word ‘proteins’ I dropped; all you need to know is there are doors. Finally, I described ions as little pieces inside or outside the cell that come and go when the doors are open. It’s not a perfect description, but I think it conveys the basic idea in a digestible way.

This was tough, but I think it was an excellent exercise. In fact, I am going to require it of all my students, and if I ever sit on a hiring committee, I’d like to ask the applicants to submit this type of summary of their research. It would be great if funding agencies started requiring this, too. When researchers receive funding, intellectual merit and broader impact statements are usually published online and accessible to the public. But even these statements, which are designed to be read by a broader audience, have their share of heavy language. If we are receiving tax dollars to perform research, we had better be able to describe it in a way that the majority of those tax payers can understand.

The simple message to scientists is: get out of the Ivory Tower, really share your science by speaking with people outside your field, speak simply but not simplistically. And remember, those fancy words don’t make you look smarter, they just limit the number and type of people you can reach.

*Hat tip to Jon Tennant (@ProtoHedgehog) for the RT that first got my attention.
**Hat tip to Isabel Van Dyke (@IsabelVanDyke) for noticing ‘teach’ is not on the list.

15 thoughts on “A great exercise in science communication

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  1. This is interesting, and funny.

    But 1000 words really is too limiting to express a lot of concepts. I’d be interesting to see a similar site that vets the use of words outside the top 10,000. Most people have a vocabulary comfortably more than that, so the number ought to be small enough that you’re retaining a lot of comprehensibility.

    1. Thank you! I agree that the explanation of some concepts can suffer under the 1000-word limit. The description sometimes ends up being very long-winded, composed of many small words, which also doesn’t facilitate communication. Still, I think everyone should try the 1000-word exercise at least once. But maybe we’ll let those job applicants use a few more words :).

  2. I agree 10000 words would be just right. I really enjoyed the challenge though, and I think it was a helpful exercise. One reason this is so important is that it gets to the heart of what science is (and isn’t) about. I like the way Feynman talks about this in his “What is science?” talk for science teachers:


    I can’t really precis the relevant section, but it starts like this:

    “The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

    I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

    He said, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

    I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird–you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.”

    1. Great quote! I also highly recommend this video interview of Feynman http://youtu.be/Bgaw9qe7DEE. He recalls many experiences with his father and what he learned from him about science, irreverence, etc. It includes a great story in which Feynman tries to explain to his father some complicated concepts in physics using simple language and the difficulties he had.

  3. This is great. Would you mind if I added your entry to my collection at my tumblr: http://upgoeryourphd.tumblr.com/

    Also, I love that Feynman quote, and I agree with Tom and Mike above. It might not be too hard to ask Theo Sanderson to integrate a couple of buttons that let you switch between corpuses (corpi?) of words, so you could go from the 1K to 3K to 10K most common

    1. Thank you, I’d love if you added my entry to your tumblr! I think that’s a great idea to ask Theo Sanderson to expand the Up-goer Five Text Editor. Have you tried contacting him over Twitter?

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