Sunday, January 23, 2011

Please, do explain.

I recently had a chance to talk to Bora Zivkovic (master guru of the science blogging world), about the who, what, and how of science bloggers and explanation. The explanation part fits in with some of the communication/education issues within science that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. How to get people engaged with scientific stories, methods, ideas, ways of thinking? What is the role of a science journalist or writer – educator? truthteller? watchdog? Also, what are the best methods and approaches for telling stories about scientific topics and making these stories relevant to a wider public? How does the public experience these stories, and how do they participate in creating them? Finally, how do these stories and ideas lead to real action in the world?

Lots of thoughts. Luckily, they overlap with a project I'll be helping out on this spring, called Building a Better Explainer. It's part of the Studio 20 program at NYU, and the idea is to investigate the best practices for explaining complex issues (from infographics to timelines to clear prose), and experiment with creating some of these "explainers." Providing this type of context and background – on stories from the housing crisis to fixing the budget –  hopefully creates ways for people to enter into current news stories that they don't quite understand. So instead of the news being a constant stream of updates, it will be something a bit more useful. 

I saw the connection to science right away, since describing complex, technical issues, with context, in an accurate but understandable way seems pretty darn close to a scientist or science writer's job description. Who better to tell us about explaining (providing background knowledge, presenting intelligible data, providing a historical/contextual dimension), than the people who do it every day? So here are some highlights from my Q&A with Bora, who is very excited about the project and was a ton of fun to talk to.

  • Explain until you’re done, and then stop. Don’t be afraid of length – long posts do well because they are useful, and people will come back to them again and again.
  • A personal, conversational tone keeps people reading. Just like you wouldn’t walk out on someone in the middle of a conversation, you read an engaging piece through until the end!
  • Metaphors can be useful in explaining complex issues, but it’s important not to get stuck with just one. A combination of metaphors is often the best way to help people understand.
  • Images like graphs, cartoons, or even hand drawn sketches help people visualize and see the data. Images are not just decoration – they can convey important information.
  • Sometimes complicating the picture is part of explanation. But one must find a balance between the overly simple and overly detailed.
  • Explanation is also about sending people away. Articles become useful by linking out to the best information. Link, Link, Link!
Here's the full interview.

Image: zetson,

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