Let’s stop being robots!

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations about how scientists are trained to take the human out of their experiments as much as possible. The conclusion of these conversations is that maybe we’ve gone too far and trained scientists that they should strive to be as non-human as possible. Right now, it seems that scientists are supposed to be robots who work millions of hours a week, have no personality, and have no work-life balance. For example, I often feel guilty about leaving lab early to go to a doctor’s appointment or about not going to lab on the weekend. Besides encouraging young scientists to stop seeking out ways to enrich their lives and take care of themselves, this “robot scientist” culture also really hurts science communication with the public because we end up talking at other humans instead of with them.

Potassium being “Cardbo” the robot in her old lab at the University of New Mexico (SUPER BONUS POINTS if you know where Cardbo is from).

Robot scientists are sad to me because science needs some human component. We need creative (and healthy) people to come up with cool ways to solve really hard problems! We also need to be able to tell the world what’s happening in our labs so that people can learn about cool new science/have opinions on the proper usage of new technology/etc.

So today I want to talk about science communication basics. How can we stop being robots and have productive conversations in which we talk with each other and not at each other? Note: these ideas are important for all conversations – not just science conversations, so you’re not off the hook today, nonscientists. This semester, I am co-teaching a science communication class for junior and senior science majors at CU. To help our students work on science communication, we ask them to think about the intentions behind what they say. Obviously, there is the main intention: to share some kind of knowledge/opinion with an audience (e.g. kale is good for you, don’t smoke, climate change is real, etc). Then there are all these subtle intentions that maybe we don’t think about as much. What other messages are hidden in the main message? Are we concerned friends (Hey, I know you’ve been having XYZ issues and I found that eating kale really helped me feel better…), are we impartial people who are experts on a topic (Kale is good for your body for these main reasons…), or are we secretly judging our audience for not eating as much kale as we do (if you don’t eat kale then you clearly don’t care about your body…)? There are so many secret intentions hidden in the way we communicate that it’s really important to think about all the types of messages we aim to get across (and the types of messages that are hidden in our preferred news sources).

After we figure out our intentions (all of them, not just the main one), it’s important to think about what our personal values are with respect to the topic and how they differ from the values of our intended audience. If they don’t align at all, it’s time to get creative. How will we communicate our messages in a way that aligns with all of our intentions and still shows respect for our audience’s opinions and values? I’m not really sure what the answer is but I think it requires some insight and the capability to act like humans and take responsibility for all of our intentions (not just the main one).

Now it’s your turn to continue our science conversation. I want to learn more about you. What would you like to talk about now? Diseases (Cancer, Zika virus, Salmonella, etc)? Science words that sound scary but are probably just fancy ways of saying normal words? More on reading about science (such as how to interpret numbers, pictures, and graphs)? More on science communication? More on jobs for scientists? Are there non-sciencey things you want me to talk about?

In other news, I am thinking about transitioning the science part of this blog to its own blog, updated bimonthly. Thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Let’s stop being robots!

  1. Maybe next semester you can teach an English 101 class. You just nailed the heart of what I used to teach.

    I think the robot problem isn’t limited to scientists, although the reason behind it might differ depending on industry. I think corporate culture generally pushes the idea that people are just a “resource.” They are a means to an end, and their only purpose is to function efficiently and effective to produce profit.

    Aaaaaand now I’m sad about the world. :(

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