“Like I’m a 5-year-old” — What Michael Scott and Child Editors Can Teach Us about Scientific Communications
March 15, 2023
In Season 5, Episode 9 of The Office, accountant Oscar Martinez attempts to explain what a budget surplus is to Michael Scott, the befuddled manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton Office. Oscar starts with a data chart that “clearly shows” a surplus of $4,300, which will be deducted from the next year’s budget unless it’s spent by the end of the day. Michael asks Oscar to explain it to him “like I’m a 5-year old,” at which point Oscar uses an analogy about his mommy and daddy giving him money to run a lemonade stand, which makes more sense to someone not fully versed in accounting jargon and helps Michael understand the situation.
In the same vein, Frontiers for Young Minds, a journal dedicated to “Science for kids, edited by kids” was established ten years ago with the goal of cutting through the scientific jargon that was a barrier to comprehension for most people. Intended to make scientific knowledge accessible to curious minds ages 8-15 years, it’s a journal that Michael Scott might appreciate. As Mark Johnson of The Washington Post notes in his January 2023 article about the journal, making scientific information more accessible to non-technical audiences “takes direct aim at a long-standing problem in science — poor communication between professionals and the public.”
Poor communication between science and health professionals and the public can have deadly consequences. While this has been shown most recently by the swirl of distrust, disinformation, and deaths resulting from ineffective communication around COVID-19 (see my colleague John Bianchi’s excellent perspective on this), it permeates efforts to explain other critical topics — from climate change and the perils of overusing antibiotics to myths around achieving and maintaining healthy weight goals and potentially devastating decreases in childhood vaccination rates.
Johnson’s article cites a paper published in March 2022 in Advances in Physiology Education titled “Change the medium, change the message: creativity is key to battle misinformation.” This paper, authored by Kayla A. Benjamin at the University of Toronto and Sarah McLean at Western University, outlines eight recommendations for decreasing the spread of pseudo-science by making informal science education more accessible.
As someone who has always enjoyed writing and even contemplated adding an English major to my college biology major, I found Benjamin and McLean’s title regarding creativity as the key to battling misinformation really resonant. Throughout my time in the laboratory and in the world of health communications, I have always tried to find creative analogies that help me explain complex science to non-technical audiences. While working on my doctoral dissertation, I opted to use the word “cable” to describe how the protein I was studying assembled itself into a defined shape, rather than using terms like “subcellular ultrastructure” or “higher-order assemblies”. I knew that my parents and grandfather would hear the word cable and envision wires or threads wrapped around each other — and I knew that the “fancy” terms would be meaningless to them.
My husband is a scientist who studies epigenomics. There are a variety of ways in which I could explain what he does. For example, I could say he uses deep-read DNAseq and lenti-TALES to uncover regulatory loci. Doing so might make me sound erudite and “in” with the epigenomics crowd, but I think it just sounds a bit pretentious and unnecessarily complex and is likely to cause whomever I’m speaking with to start thinking about something else. Anything else.
Instead, I usually use a light bulb analogy. Think of the Human Genome Project as an effort to identify all the light bulbs in your house — which rooms they are in and, in some cases, the wattage and/or the brand of the bulb. In this scenario, epigenomics is the effort to figure out the wiring plan for all those bulbs, including which switches control them, what other bulbs are on the same circuit, and what happens if a bulb or switch is faulty. Perhaps this explanation is a bit cheesy, but when it comes to effective scientific communications, I truly believe that a little cheese is more palatable than a plate loaded with hard-to-swallow jargon.
For decades, the scientific community focused almost entirely on communicating in complex detail with other scientists. If educating the general public was ever a concern of the academic world, it was addressed by providing a bottom-line statement of what it all meant, with the expectation that this statement would be accepted without question. When questions did arise — about evolution, climate change, or when life begins — there was a general sense that engaging with those who doubted the science would somehow undercut the science itself. “The data are the data” is a term used too often for too long. Leaning on an analogy from the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate,” and this failure has had perilous consequences.
So what is a scientific communications professional supposed to do to overcome this failure?
First, we need to consider the audience to whom we are speaking and identify the common language that can serve as a foundation for sharing knowledge. We also need to recognize that digital and social media have toppled the silos that allowed us to use vastly different languages when speaking with different constituencies. A paper published in Cell, The Journal of Rheumatology, Health Economics, or any other peer-reviewed forum is just as likely to be read by a patient or an investor as it is by another scientist. This argues for toning down the jargon even when developing communications for technically sophisticated audiences.
Most importantly, we need to get out of our own heads and recognize that our value comes not in showing what we know but in understanding what our audiences don’t know. Although the attribution may be incorrect, Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If you are struggling to explain the latest breakthrough in biomedical science using non-technical language, maybe the solution is to find yourself a 5-year-old.