Today’s Wednesday ORF comes to us from The Guardian, and consists of a) food for thought and b) a challenge! I’ll get to that in a minute, and I encourage my scientist friends, science blogger friends (ahem: CauseScience!) and lay reader friends alike to complete the challenge with me.
Whenever we, as a society, talk about scientists communicating, one particular misconception tends to surface time and again: that they can’t do it. That when a scientist speaks, her language is peppered with jargon, incomprehensible, and her manner is scatter-brained at best. I’ve written previously about scientific stereotypes, and I’m sure I will again. Tim Radford, the former science editor for The Guardian, agrees that this myth doesn’t really have legs; in order to get grants, write papers, and present their research, scientists actually have to be quite good at communicating their work in a focused manner – at least, to their peers. Contrary to popular belief, many practicing scientists are also quite skilled at public engagement, as well, and apply their scientific knowledge and economy of language to the popular sphere.
For those less skilled in this practice, one imagines that may be because a) various important people in their field discourage such engagement (even the much-beloved Carl Sagan was often criticized for his public work), or b) because they’re simply unused to speaking or writing to that kind of audience. While many graduate programs offer extramural opportunities that help develop these skills, they’re rarely formalized within the curriculum. And, let’s be honest – the rhetoric, oratory, or public speaking course has fallen somewhat out of favor as staple of the liberal arts education.
Last week, novelist and teacher Aifric Campbell wrote in The Guardian about one way in which Imperial College London has taken a multi-disciplinary approach to a scientific education. The piece, “Scientists Outshine Arts Students with Experiments in Creative Writing,” describes how ICL students – who, though still undergraduates, primarily take STEM/business courses – have the option of taking a creative writing curriculum to supplement their scientific training. Campbell observes that these students are often quite good writers, and that creative writing encourages them to think differently about scientific problems, to express themselves clearly, and to consider more deeply the societal impact that their science may have.
Now, I’ll freely admit to some personal bias when I read this article; as an aspiring writer and communicator of science, the skill set that creative writing training develops is near and dear to my heart, and generally pretty complementary to and supportive of the scientific skill set. To pursue either discipline successfully requires clarity of thought, creativity, and an excellent work ethic. As we continue to discuss ways in which to hone the communication skills of young investigators – whether through training in improvisational theater, or through writing workshops, or through public outreach, or perhaps through some combination of these – it’s worthwhile to consider creative outlets like writing as a useful tool for a scientist to have in her toolbox.
I have fond memories of one particular course from my undergraduate education, in which students were expected to write 300-word “themes” five out of seven days per week for the entire semester. The constant creative engagement helped us feel more creative, better-equipped as writers, and forced us to notice things in our language and in our environment that were often processed quickly, with little awareness.
In the spirit of creativity, I challenge all readers – particularly those in analytical fields, but all are welcome to participate – to take the time this week to write a short, 300-word (or more, if you like) creative piece. It can be science-related, or entirely unrelated. I’ll post mine on the blog by next Friday and tag with with the hashtag #creativescientist. You should do the same! Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like me to give you a prompt; sometimes that structure is helpful.