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February 20, 2006

An attempt at communicating science to lay audience on a blog

Last night I wrote a long post on Circadiana about a new study linking Lithium, Circadian Clocks and Bipolar Disorder.  I wrote that post while having fresh in my mind the recent discussions about the strategies that scientists can use to communicate their findings to the lay audience.

Thus, I tried to write that post, although it is about a paper that describes yet another little detail in the complexity of nitty-gritty details of the circadian clock, with lay audience in mind.  This is what I tried to do, and you tell me if I succeeded or not, and if not, what I could have done better:

First, with the title and the first paragraph or two, I tried to hook the audience.  People love diseases, so I put Bipolar Disorder right up front.

Then, I provided a little bit of historical background which also highlights some aspects of scientific method, specifically the differences in approach between the time when a new discipline just begins and later when the discipline is mature.

Next, I showed how two seemingly distant areas of research got connected to each other and briefly highlighted a couple of studies provoked by the realization of that connection.

Then, in order to be able to explain the new paper, I went all the way back to BIO101 and explained briefly how transcription and translation work.  I covered only those aspects of it that are relevant to the main story, leaving much detail out.  I tried to leave the specialized terminology out as well. Actually, those few terms that I used I tried to slyly slide in without drawing attention to the fact that those words are specialized scientific terms.  First time I use a term, I use it in a colloquial manner (though correctly), and the second time I use it in a more conventional way, but with no fuss (and no italics or bold either).  Do not scare people with language!

I then moved on to the description of the molecular mechanism of the mammalian circadian clock.  Again, I only cover aspects of it that are essential for understanding the new research, leaving a lot of details out.  I use the terminology I just explained in the preceeding paragraphs exactly in the way I used them there. At the end of that portion of the post, I feel that the reader naturally comes to the correct question that needs to be asked (I am leading the reader there all along) and then show that the new paper addresses exactly that question. 

The paper itself is full of difficult detail.  I omit all that and describe, in simplest possible terms, the main gist of the paper, and how it connects lithium to circadian clocks to Bipolar Disorder.

I placed a lot of pictures in the post that should help the reader visualize and understand what I am saying.  I also provide links for people who want to learn more.

Let me know how YOU felt when reading that and if you think some aspects of the presentation can be improved and in what way.

(Cross-posted on Science And Politics)

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Off the subject, but only sort of: Please take apart Leon Wieseltier's review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell. It's all psuedophilisophical BS (Wieseltier's review that is; I haven't read Dennett's book but the review is obtuse).

I just posted (here and on my blog) a short post linking to the best blog fiskings of the Wieseltier crap.

Well, now, I am looking forward to reading this piece- especially after Mad Mike's pitch for more scientists writing to the Op-ed pages (or communicating on science to the masses in some regular public forum).
As well, for those of us for whom blogging isn't a specialized field, (I hope that I'm not the only proto-simian Luddite philistine who peruses this stuff) a brief definition of the term "fisking" follows:
.."The aim of a fisk is to bring ridicule on the person being fisked and logic is the most potent weapon for indulging in such ridicule. In my opinion, a fisk that lacks logical arguments is a bad fisk, but it is not meant to be characteristic of the custom of fisking.
In fact, a fisk lacking in logic would not even be much of a fisk at all because the focus of a fisk is almost invariably an easy target. In particular, the other essential element of a fisk (arguably why it was named after Robert Fisk) is a certain 'boomerang' aspect to the argument being fisked - the potential to use the inherent logic (or rather lack of logic) in the fisked argument to turn it on it itself, - to expose it as highly illogical on its face, using the logic inherent within the argument to beat itself up.." (from Catallaxy).
While the tortured syntax at the end of this, um, definition may cause a wry facial expression, you get the idea...
Now, if it had been "fishing" or "fisting" I'd have had no problem comprehending. (Hey- I actually looked in a couple of dictionaries first...) ^..^

Well, the strategy worked on me. I clicked that link the day you posted it. Also, it's very helpful to lay readers like me to get a summary before delving into scientific material.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I think this piece needs some work before it's ready for the op-ed pages (or even as an article in the science section of a major newspaper.)

I got halfway through "Lithium Affects Circadian Pacemaker Cells in a dish" before I lost interest. Maybe it's because I'm just not that interested in this topic, or maybe it's because the post remains too technical for a non-specialist to appreciate. I appreciate that you tried to eliminate jargon, but there's still a ton in there that you might not realize is not meaningful to non-spealists.

For example, I found the first three pictures incomprehensible. I don't know what it means for circidian rythms to be "phase advanced". I look at the picture and see a list of stuff like "Oral temperature (5)" and "oral temperature (10)" that are hours advanced or delayed. Huh?

You also condescend: "Let me now try to explain how the mammalian circadian clock works on the molecular level in as simple way as possible, so the non-scientists reading this can - hopefully - understand..." Although this does remind me of Feynman's awesome "You're not going to understand Quantum Electrodynamics because I don't understand it. No-one does!"

Your discussion of DNA might be better served if you cast it in the traditional "rungs in a ladder" metaphor. I think this is a case of dumbing things down too far. I would assume that anyone who was sufficiently interested in this topic to read the post would have at least a dim memory of highschool bio.

Personally, I can picture the double helix, and I remember that each "rung" is composed of a matched pair, and each half of the pair can be represented by one of four letters. And I also remember that DNA "unzips" for replecation and protien production and that RNA has something to do with it. And that's about it.

So, scrub the jargon, walk people through the figures or don't have them, give people credit for being at least dimly aware of how these things work and build from there...don't condescend, just say "in the simplest terms, here's how this stuff works", and strive for brevity.

Thank you. That is constructive. I guess I forgot, in the early parts of the post, that it is not going to be read only by regular readers of Circadiana who should know what "phase-advanced" means as I explained it in my ClockTutorials series. Perhaps I could link back to those posts when I use that terminiology.

Ok... I read to the end, then backward to the beginning (in little chunks- sometimes this helps me remember what didn't make sense on the way through, the first time).
You might explain "circadiana" (ie that it doesn't mean "in the years of the moon goddess", or reference giant crickets, or french canadians) which isn't in my middle-aged dictionaries. I was doing fine until "suprachiasmatic hypothalamus" which sidetracked me into chia pets who couldn't sleep. I know that lovers of language ARE Modern Major-generals at heart- but don't flaunt it (esp when you imply that I'm not gonna get Biology 102).
I liked the 1st and 3rd visuals- but then, a picture that features Twin Reverb is always gonna get me going- even if the lithium is slowing it down.
You assume that people will comprehend Cell differentiation; but it might help to point out Why the events you study occur in discrete areas of the body (and lose some of the stuff about enzymes that alter and modify protein construction, to keep the mind from wondering "where are THEY from?")... "Transcription" is a fine, precise word- but a simpler image would help (the pictures work better).
As Primetime TV makes way for the new show, "Gray's Anatomy", you may find your sites being visited by the recipients of the process of "cultural osmosis"- esp if it's a "hit". ( I can't wait for the first big stem cell breakthrough... oboyoboyoboy)

This is helpful. The core posts over there are targeted at students taking chronobiology courses - I know how to write those effectively (I think). Some posts are targeting experts in the field - no big deal.

But it is difficult to take latest research and present it in a way that is interesting and understandable for the lay audience - the average blog-surfer with minimal science education. I never meant to turn this into an Op-ed, though, it is just one of many blog-posts, but I do want to hone my skilld in presenting hard research in an easy-to-understand way.

I think it's a matter of understanding one's audience, and I think that, as scientists, we generally do a bad job communicating with people outside our fields. If I was aggressive in my comments, it's because you specifically referenced this post before your link to your post and your explanation of what you did.

There are at least four distinct audiences that we need to get better at communicating with: a) professional scientists in other fields; b) scientifically curious people who read e.g. the NYTimes science section (or the reporters who write for it); c) mass market "ley" audience e.g. op-ed pages in large or small papers and also as a talking head on TV; and d) politicians and beaurocrats who often controll the purse-strings.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was about the "elevator talk". Pretend you just got on an elevator with either a Titan of Industry or an Influentual Government Person, and you have the span of the elevator ride to explain what you do and why it should be funded.

This is akin to creative writing excercises where you must write a paragraph without using the letter S.

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