I’m at a scientific conference currently. All day yesterday, I was in the same room listening to presentations on the same topic, mainly from people doing pure research, with some people doing research with more application objectives. At the end of the day, they brought several of the presenters together for a panel discussion. I had listened all day to many of the presentations, and I was growing somewhat concerned about the implications of some of the research. I support their research. I respect their research. I want to see more of their research. However I do not work in research, and where I work, communicating with the public can be very important. So I asked members of this panel a question. How are they going to explain to the public what they are doing. There is nothing unethical about what they are doing. They are doing good work that could lead to important information being revealed, but they are doing research in the real world, that quite frankly is not at this point meant for the real world. So I wanted to know, had they thought about how to explain the results of their research to the public? A member of the public who saw some of their data could become seriously confused and scared because they wouldn’t understand what the results mean.
I generally am not all that good at communicating. I am fine with public speaking if I have a script. However in public or even one on one, when speaking impromptu I many times stumble over my words. I sometimes have trouble getting all the thoughts in my brain to come out my mouth in a linear manner. I know it is a fault. I work on it. I have also been told by people that I sometimes talk at too high a technical level. I work on it.
So there I was at a scientific conference trying to ask people, many of whom I had known for a day or two, a question. I respect these people and their work. I am trying to ask a question and explain that members of the public might not understand their results. The irony is beyond rich. I, who have trouble communicating at times, who have trouble communicating at a level that others understands technical information, am trying to explain to my peers that they are doing work in a situation that members of the public can see their work, and members of the public will not understand their work.
Of course I stumble on my words. Of course I can’t explain myself clearly. And of course, these scientists I respect start getting defensive. They explain I don’t understand what they are doing. They try to explain what they are doing as if I have not already seen several presentations explaining what they are doing. One interrupts me before I can fully try to explain what I am saying. I explain I completely understand what they are doing, but members of the public won’t. I only want to know how they will explain their results to the public. I don’t want to argue with these people. I hate arguing. I just want them to understand my point of view. I stumble trying to explain. My heart starts racing so badly that I am shaking. I try to calm myself and explain differently what I am saying. A couple of people finally start to understand what I am asking. One responds “oh well, we will explain [jibberish].” I thought I had trouble communicating. No one would understand that.
A woman I have started to have a professional relationship with and have started to become friends with also was sitting next to me. Afterwards, she assured me she completely understood and had the same concern. Then several other people, who are not doing this research, came up to me and said they understood and shared my concerns. I thanked them for that. They have no idea how much I needed that. I hate arguing with people. I don’t want these researchers to think I don’t support their work. I want these people to like me, and I know we share a common goal.
I live and work by a couple of rules. I will not lie to people, and I will not put people in danger. Those are at the top of my list of rules. Telling people the truth is easier said than done when the truth involves highly complex information. It is difficult to explain what the results mean to the public when you don’t understand what the results mean. I work with some awesome people, some of whom take what I write and translate it so a normal person can understand it. I make sure it is technically accurate, and they make sure people can understand it. I understand the importance of communication. You have to tell people the truth, but you have to tell people the truth in way they can understand it. When you don’t understand what your truth means, you also have to tell people that truth.