Friday 13 July 2012

Communicating science in the age of the internet

Here's an interesting test for those on Twitter. You see a tweet giving a link to an interesting topic. You click on the link and see it's a YouTube piece. Do you (a) feel pleased that it's something you can watch or (b) immediately lose interest. The answer is likely to depend on content, but also on how long it is. Typically, if I see a video is longer than 3 minutes, I'll give up unless it looks super-interesting.
Test #2 is for those of you who are scientists. You have to give a presentation about a recent piece of work to a non-specialist audience. How long do you think you will need? (a) one hour; (b) 20 minutes; (c) 10 minutes; (d) 3 minutes.
If you're anything like me, there's a disconnect between your reactions to these different scenarios. The time you feel you need to communicate to an audience is much greater than the time you are willing to spend watching others. Obviously, it's not a totally fair comparison: I'm willing to spend up to an hour listening to a good lecture (but no more!); though to tell the truth, it's an unusual lecturer who can keep me interested for the whole duration.
Those who use the internet to communicate science have learned that the traditional modes of academic communication are hopelessly ill-suited for drawing in a wider audience. TED talks have been a remarkably successful phenomenon, and are a million miles from the normal academic lecture: the ones I've seen are typically no longer than 15 minutes and make minimal use of visual aids. The number of site visits for TED talks is astronomically higher than, for instance, Cambridge University's archive of Film Interviews With Leading Thinkers, where Aaron Klug has had around 300 hits in just over one year, and Fred Sanger a mere 148. The reason is easy to guess: many of these Cambridge interviews last two hours or more. They constitute priceless archive material, and a wealth of insights into the influences that shape great academic minds, but they aren't suited to the casual viewer.
For most academics, though, shorter pieces pose a dilemma: they don't allow you to present the evidence for what you are saying. I felt this keenly when viewing a TED talk by autism expert Ami Klin. At 22 minutes, this was rather longer than the usual TED talk, but Klin is an engaging speaker, and he held my attention for the whole time. As I listened, though, I became increasingly uneasy. He was making some pretty dramatic claims. Specifically, as the accompanying blurb stated: "Ami Klin describes a new early detection method that uses eye-tracking technologies to gauge babies' social engagement skills and reliably measure their risk of developing autism". I was very surprised at the claims made for eye-tracking, and the data shown in the presentation were unconvincing. More generally, Klin talked about universal screening for 6-month-olds, but I was not sure that he understood the requirements for an effective screening test. After the end of the talk I checked out Klin's publications on Web of Science and couldn't find any published papers that gave a fuller picture to back up this claim. I asked my colleagues who work in autism and none of them was aware of such evidence. I emailed Klin last week to ask if he can point me to relevant sources but so far I've not had a reply. (If I do, I'll add the information). At the time of writing, his talk has had over 132,000 views.
So we have a dilemma here. Nearly everyone agrees that scientists should engage with audiences beyond their traditional narrow academic confines. But the usual academic lecture, saturated with PowerPoint explaining and justifying every statement, is ill-suited to such an audience. However, if we reduce our communications to the bottom line, then the audience has to take a lot on trust. It may be impossible to judge whether the speaker is expressing an accepted mainstream view. If, as in the Klin case, the speaker is both famous and charismatic, then it's unlikely that a general audience will realise that many experts in his field would want to see a lot more hard evidence before accepting what he was saying.
I've been brooding about this issue because I've recently joined up with some colleagues in a web-based campaign to raise awareness of language impairments in children. My initial idea was that we'd post lectures by experts, attempting to explain what we know about the nature, causes, and impacts of language impairments. Fortunately, we were dissuaded from this idea by our friends in TeamSpirit, a public relations company who have come on board to help us get launched. With their assistance, we've posted several videos and worked out a clearer idea of what our YouTube channel should do. We will have professionally produced films that feature the experiences of young people with language impairments and their families, as well as the professionals working with them. But we also wanted to ensure that the material we put out was evidence-based, and to include some pieces on issues where there were relevant research findings. We were advised that any piece by a talking academic head should be no more than 3 minutes long. I could see the wisdom of that, given my own reactions to longer video pieces. But I was uncomfortable. In 3 minutes, it's impossible to do more than give a bottom line. I didn't want people to have to take what I said on trust: I wanted them to have access to the evidence behind it. Well, we're now experimenting with an approach that I think may work to keep everyone happy. Our academic-style talks will stick to the 3 minute limit, but will be associated with a link to a PowerPoint presentation which will give a fuller account. This is still shorter than the usual academic talk - we aim for around 15-20 slides, all of which should be self-explanatory without needing an oral narrative. And, crucially, the PowerPoint will include references to peer-reviewed research to support what is said, and will include a link to a reference list, including where possible a review article. I anticipate that most people who visit our YouTube site will only get as far as the 3 minute video. That's absolutely fine - after all, only a small proportion of potential visitors will be evidence geeks. But, importantly, the evidence will be there for those who want it. The PowerPoint will give the bare bones, and the references will allow people to track back to the original sources.
We live in exciting times, where it has become remarkably easy to harness the power of the internet to disseminate research. The challenge is to do so in a way that is effective while preserving academic rigour.


  1. The key thing is to both have solid data then be able to do an engaging 15 minutes to the public on it. Charismatic academics still fall prey to the temptation to use public engagement contexts to promote personal pet hypotheses that they haven't the research to back up safe in the knowledge that most people will take what they say on authority and won't ask for the backup. It's called the Greenfield Effect.

  2. Dorothy, you said: "Nearly everyone agrees that scientists should engage with audiences beyond their traditional narrow academic confines". What is your reason for taking this view? Is it that the taxpayer is paying you to do your research? If not, then why do you think this should be done?

    And why do you think this is even possible? Suppose you were sure that there is evidence that strongly supports the idea that there is an association between SLI and something genetic. How would you explain this to a parent of an SLI child if that parent, like most parents, does not know what the word "gene" means?

  3. Max: yes, we want public funds to support science, but it can also be the case that our findings are important to communicate in their own right. Some parts of science are much harder than others to explain to a general audience, but that general audience will be very diverse in terms of understanding. It will include policymakers as well as parents, for instance. I see a big challenge of my job as working out how to explain things in a way that is comprehensible yet not inaccurate. The example you give, of genetics influences on SLI, is in fact one that I tackled in a recent RALLI video, using just the format that I described in this post.
    Even if the viewer doesn't get the genetics aspects, I hope they will come away with a recognition that it's not appropriate to blame parents for causing SLI by not talking to their children - which is still a common view among non-experts (including some policy-makers).
    And in terms of explaining genetics to a lay audience, we are currently in the throes of trying to improve methods for doing this, in the context of research we're doing with children with sex chromosome trisomies, where there is a big question of how and when you tell the child that they have an extra chromosome and what the implications are. It's very hard but I think we need to try.

  4. Amy Klin is a behavioral geneticist who beleves that autism is caused by gene defects (hundreds of them)inherited from parents. What he never points out is that several groups have tested eye tracking features observed in the parents of autistic children compared to parents of typically developing children. The parents of autistic children show similar eye tracking features seen in their children that is not seen in parents of typically developing children. The parents of autistic children are not autistic themselves. There are very few genetic conditions that follow Mendellian patterns of inheritance, Huntingtons Chorea being one example.
    Most human diseases are multifactorial and involve multiple risk factors, genetic and environmental, of small effect that in aggregate increase total risk in any individual case.

  5. A very nice observation! (I also ignore links to youtube videos - it makes me instantly turn off).

    I think the problem might be even broader than you suggest, as even some high-ranking journals are aiming for a kind of "hit and run" science: they want only the high-impact conclusions, with the more careful exploration of your results (say, using follow-up studies to confirm and expand) relegated to "specialist" journals.

    As an example, I think Psychological Science is one such hit-and-run journal. As a grad student, I submitted a paper there. While we were doing the revise and resubmit, I realised there was an error in my method - I hadn't properly counterbalanced. With a shock of terror, I looked through my submission (did I lie to Psych Science?!?) and realised that I was fully covered - there wasn't enough room to go into detail about the counterbalancing, so nobody who read the paper would have known about this possible problem.

    I re-ran the study, properly, and this correct version is now published, but it was a wake-up call to look carefully even at published studies. To this day, I prefer lower ranking journals because they have a word count that allows a full explanation of the methods, and even room for follow-up studies to confirm the initial ones.

  6. Very interesting and insightful post, and one that touches on issues I seem to have to grapple with daily. I have a real aversion for video content - it's so slow a communication format compared to reading!! But there is a growing hunger for content here, and academics do not provide effective content most of the time.

    On the TED talks, while I think there is tremendous value there, because the "E" stands for "Entertainment" and they attract strong egos, the content is sometimes less focused on education and more on making a splash/notoriety. However, strong educational/informational content needs to be the opposite of this in some ways - more focused on the recipient than the messenger.

    I've been exploring how to be far more effective in this space at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, and it's becoming clear that for academic-related content to reach a broad audience, we have to shed some of our self-centered communication ideas and embrace what works with audiences - while maintaining academic integrity - not easy! I've written a couple of pieces on YouTube and high impact learning on 2020 science (e.g. and we are experimenting with a very edgy format for packaging science and health risk content in a more accessible form ( I'm not sure where this will take us, but I do think that approaching online content in terms of learning/educational impact rather than self-promotion will lead to some radical, and probably uncomfortable, changes in how we as academics connect with others.

  7. This only works if all sources referenced in the PDF are openly accessible. If your target audience is non-academic, the sources won't be of any use to them if they are locked behind paywalls.

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