Growing up, the scientific narrative I compiled was that any obstacle I experienced in my understanding of science was a fault of my own, rather than an issue in the communication of the science itself. Science always communicates perfectly. Infallibly. Conclusively. Anyone who thinks otherwise obviously does not understand science. Such people could never be scientists because if they were, it is certain that they would concur with and never dare to question science’s absolute and undeniable logic — for science and its communication is flawless, and anyone who objects is mistaken.
No! The problem exists not in the pupil, but the communication. Harboring the attitude that ‘science communication is infallible’ is harmful to potential scientists, who, upon showing any lack of understanding, are told off for their inability to comprehend logical thought. Realistically, it’s as easy for a scientist to miscommunicate as it is for a student to misunderstand.
The issue arises when scientists create a distinction from the humanities, banishing creative pursuits and literary exploration. Why must science be so far removed from the humanities? Scientists and students of science should transcend the imaginary boundaries which separate scientific communication from literary communication, merging the two and making science more accessible. Instead of fostering attitudes of “choice” between the two disciplines, we need to create an emphasis on science “together/with” the humanities.
I asked Dr. Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary about the interplay between science and the humanities. Both a psycholinguist and a creative writer, Dr. Sedivy has spent much of her life examining and bridging the gap between multiple disciplines. She put it this way: “Struggling to integrate the assumptions and practices of two separate disciplines can lead to work that overcomes the limitations of each discipline, avoids the excesses of each discipline, or combines the best of them. The tension that arises between seemingly incompatible practices or values is extremely valuable.”
If we aim to improve science communication, we must encourage scientists to become skilled in non-scientific disciplines — story-telling or creative writing, for example. The current state of science communication leaves no room for interpretation, hence there is little room for excitement. Where creative writing aims to engage and support rumination in a widespread audience, science writing tends to convey verbose conclusions in a specialized language for a specific audience. Can we broaden the audience scientific communication reaches by advocating for a more creative and interdisciplinary aspect of science writing? Absolutely.
Many highly cited articles in reputable, peer-reviewed journals are not just scientific, but fun, engaging and creative. Articles like “A ‘rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,’ but exactly what is a gastric adenocarcinoma?” in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, or “Fantastic yeasts and where to find them: The hidden diversity of dimorphic fungal pathogens” in Current Opinion in Microbiology, represent the interplay between scientific and literary communication. Many individual scientists also share the sentiment that science communication should be fun, engaging and interdisciplinary. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jacque Costeau, Atul Gawande and Sanjay Gupta are among the best communicators in the scientific world — perhaps not surprisingly, they all share a deep-rooted interest in the humanities.
If we encourage, among scientists, an interest in the humanities and creative non-scientific pursuits, science communication will become engaging, more transparent and tailored to a broader audience. Currently, scientists are seen as “elites” who only cater to a limited audience, and members of the non-scientific audience are losing trust in what they do not understand. If the scientists who design our future cannot communicate their work to lay audiences, the beauty of human development goes unrecognized.
In the words of Dr. Edward Guiliano, president of the New York Institute of Technology: “If STEM fields are about exploring essential physical truths, the humanities are about developing the capabilities for such inquiries.”
Without the humanities, the sciences would flounder. In the divisive climate of the 21st century, science is precariously perched on a glass pedestal supported by empiricism and specialized language. Our goal must be to nurture good scientific and humanistic communicators. We should act quickly, because if we don’t, we may find the glass pedestal of science toppled and shattered.
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Neal Krishna is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.