MiSciWriters member Kristina Lenn chatted with Nick Wigginton, the assistant vice president of research at the University of Michigan, about the importance of communication among researchers and the big responsibility science writers carry in the current political climate.
Anyone who has ever done collaborative research can list the benefits of being able to work with another group and learn about the cultural differences between researchers. Dr. Nick Wigginton knows better than anyone else how important communication is to successful collaborations.
Prior to his tenure at Michigan, Dr. Wigginton received his doctorate in Earth Science, and his dissertation was a collaborative effort by his department, physics, chemistry, and biology. This interdisciplinary gauntlet gave him the tools he needed to succeed as an editor for Science magazine where he needed to address the research and cultures of multiple departments.
Scientific writing takes many forms, including collaborative grants, journal articles for scientists, and online articles for the public. According to Dr. Wigginton, one of the most important tools a writer can keep in his or her arsenal is to “find…an understanding of the target audience and…find common ground.”
When it comes to collaborating with other scientists, Dr. Wigginton says that his interdisciplinary doctorate helped prepare him for his career at Science because “the audience is so broad. I had to help the researchers understand who their audience is and make it clear what it is they did, why, and how…you want a scientist in another discipline to understand why your stuff is so cool.”
When it comes to writing for the general public: “Find something relatable…you should be able to explain something that relates to the public. Scientists don’t give themselves enough credit and undersell themselves. Find a common level. Connect on a background level. Humanize yourself and the science to which the reader can relate.”
When working with collaborators, it is vital to learn the culture of each department.
“For example, in Earth Sciences, the order of authors in a publication list is not very reflective of the department(s) with which you are working. If they’re collaborating with someone in biology, for example, recognizing when you are using jargon is an important issue that needs to be resolved, especially if the words have different meanings among departments.”
One of the things Dr. Wigginton has learned from his multi-disciplinary dissertation is the ability to streamline his discussions to fit his audience. He stresses the importance of being able to address any scientific audience in a way that allows them to understand the how, the what, and the why.
When it comes to writing for a more general audience, this task is far more daunting. Dr. Wigginton says it is important to write in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader with jargon or lists of definitions, but instead in a way that explains each idea and its significance along the way. He describes science writing as like a tightrope-walk of explaining the facts but leaving room for questions.
“It’s important not to get too bogged down in the details. You don’t want to gloss over it, but you want to convey these are not trivial things but things that have been developed over decades and are robust methods for measuring things. You want to make sure that you don’t convey that this is present science as irrefutable, but that it’s simply the best we can do right now. You don’t want to show: science is closed-minded.”
Furthermore, in today’s heated political climate, the public is more suspicious of science. Whether it’s from differences in politics, ideology, or religion, much of the public seems to believe that science itself is one big conspiracy theory. Topics such as global warming, vaccinations, and evolution are hot subjects of discussion for everybody, and the spectrum of opinions could be more broad.
“You almost have to learn how to debunk conspiracy theories more than anything. There’s a growing mistrust of science. Even if you present people with the facts, that doesn’t necessarily change their opinions. It could have the opposite effect and make them dig in their heels with a wide spectrum of opinions,” says Dr. Wigginton.
Dr. Wigginton advises to tread carefully on issues of such controversy, but that we as science writers have a responsibility to debunk conspiracy theories and clean up the mess left behind by untrustworthy sources.
“I like to think that my style is to relate to [the public] personally and help them understand that there is not some vast conspiracy to con the general public into believing something that isn’t true.”
In fact, it might be of value to convey to the public that scientists are skeptics as well. Newton’s laws of physics went unchallenged for centuries, but when there were discrepancies between his laws and what was observed, scientists went after it like lions hunting antelope. If there is the possibility of a new theory that flies in the face of hundreds of years of research, scientists will rise to the challenge of either refuting it or backing it up.
Dr. Wigginton advises to write in a way that doesn’t appear as if you have an agenda. Otherwise, you may just be written off as part of the conspiracy.
About this series: Conversations about Science Writing is a series of interviews with people of varied experiences in science writing. If you know anyone who works in these areas – including yourself – let us know!