Why We Communicate

Take a look online, at social media especially, and you can see the frustration of those dedicated communicators battling to show people the truth.

These dedicated people that are locked in the “debates” over vaccination or climate change for example are, I assume, motivated by a desire for truth, logic, one might even say sanity in decision making. And while this is a valiant motivation for science communicators, and one that is absolutely necessary for society, I don’t think I can honestly say it’s my motivation.

I began thinking more closely about why I chose to write and speak about science as a career after speaking with two separate guests on my podcast (I know everyone has a podcast so here is a shameless plug for mine). Within these two conversations, a discrepancy emerged. While speaking with my former Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. John Gilleard, he revealed that one of the reasons he communicates science is to inform and promote the value of critical thinking with the hopes that people make more informed decisions in all aspects of life. However, a large chunk of the conversation I had with Jay Ingram, a broadcaster, author and professional science communicator, revolved around the fact that people don’t use facts and critical thinking to make decisions. The motivation to encourage critical thinking by informing an audience and revealing the logic behind the decision making does reflect how people make decisions.

Instead of facts humans often use emotion when making decisions and show a personal connection to the things they believe to be true. It should be noted too that we all do this. Regardless of education, political affiliation or demographic, no one is immune to making these emotional decisions and not wanting to confront information that dispels their deeply held convictions. Should emotion and life experience not then play a role in communication and the motivation to communicate?

If the entry point to the journey of learning about something is welcoming and fun perhaps more people will take the ride.

Again from my podcasts Jay and I discussed examples of communicators, who attempt to make the issue personal for their audience. One way is to question rather than explain. What sorts of things do people notice in the last years about the weather? Many responses end up revealing the data. Not as much snow, the ground thaws earlier, less wildlife migrating, etc. In this manner, the facts revealed themselves in a personal way through each person’s life experience. This is not to say that all science communication needs to follow this. There will always be a need for explainers and facts. However, even for me, someone who spent a lot of his life in a science lecture hall, explainers are not the style that I resonate with most.

This led me to think more about why I do what I do and if I was honest with myself the only real answer was— because it was fun.

Groups of people, perhaps at the pub, chatting, laughing and socializing represents one of my favourite things to do and the richest learning environment. So for me, a career talking, or writing, about science, was perhaps inevitable. But more to the point I think that the fun of simply talking about interesting topics, with no agenda as to what we are supposed to learn, is an undervalued motivation for communicating science. When I get to write a piece or speak with someone on my podcast I do so for my own fun and curiosity, with the hopes that there is a like-minded audience that wants to come along for the ride. I have also come to believe that this might be an underrated way of making the information personal, as we discussed above.

If the entry point to the journey of learning about something is welcoming and fun perhaps more people will take the ride. This is exactly one of the reasons The Xylom is a great project. It provides a fun, personal and emotional path for curious audiences to follow. By meeting researchers and seeing what they love and what motivates them a relationship with the world of facts and reason they inhabit can be built. Selfishly, I am continuing on this path because my motivation is to have a good time, meet interesting people and learn about the world.

But of course, all are welcome to join.


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