What's a Guy Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

English Prof and Nonfiction Writer Turns AGU Blogger

What you know can hurt you, a new AGU communications blogger advises the science community. Particularly if your audience doesn’t know what you assume it does.

An English professor and nonfiction writer, John Calderazzo of Colorado State University, takes roost as a guest blogger for one of the world’s leading scientific societies, with a focus on communicating science.

“When it comes to communication, be careful of what you know,” he advises in the first of a series of posts he’ll be doing for the American Geophysical Union.

“What you know can sometimes get in the way,” according to Calderazzo, particularly when scientists discuss their science and scholarship with nonexperts “and even to scientists in other fields.”

Calderazzo in that post wrote of researchers who provided 120 volunteers 25 well-known songs — as in the Jingle Bells, the Star Spangled Banner variety. One volunteer would “rap out its tune on a tabletop,” to see if another volunteer could recognize it. “No humming allowed.”

Very few could. For those volunteers tapping out the tunes, he wrote, words, melody, and more “became instantly embedded in their brain.” But they took their knowledge for granted and ignored that the volunteer listeners might not know the same things.

Calderazzo also used a climate change example, an issue on which he has developed a keen interest. An audience might think a scientist’s reference to a “positive feedback” harks back to that individual’s having gotten “positive feedback” from a boss. Ergo a good thing. But if the scientist really meant that the melting was made worse, “good communication has bitten the dust,” he wrote.

So bag the jargon, acronyms, and other tricks of your particular trade. He offers one more example:

“Hyporheic zone sounds pretty cool tripping off the tongue of a hydrologist.” But if it doesn’t carry the same meaning for a room full of policy folks … “well, goodbye, message. And maybe goodbye, policy, too.”

Calderazzo says those wanting to follow his AGU science communication posts can do so via AGU Blogs at The Plainspoken Scientist.

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