Rob Calder blogs about the difficulties of science communication, against the backdrop of a World Cup quarter final. How do you communicate with people who are just waiting for the match to start?

In off the woodwork

The three of us were in a Camden pub. My wife, David (my father-in-law), and me. The telly was showing the build-up to the Netherlands vs. Argentina World Cup match. We’d made some slightly stilted conversation with people from Utrecht who weren’t really into football – the language barrier and background noise making communication tricky. The pub wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t quiet either. There was lots going on.

“He told me if I had a spirit level that wasn’t very accurate, then I didn’t have a spirit level.”

David is a retired carpenter, and his advice has helped me understand science and research more than many lectures or methods papers. For example, his advice to ‘measure twice and cut once’ simplified several lectures worth into something that I still use now.

Another piece of his advice helped me write my PhD proposal. He told me if I had a spirit level that wasn’t very accurate, then I didn’t have a spirit level. The point (for me) was that if you claim to have an evidence-based treatment, but it doesn’t seem to work when implemented, then maybe you don’t have an evidence-based treatment.

He also told me that you only get a nail in the foot once.

Caught offside

Anyway, back in the Camden pub. The pre-match buzz was building and the telly was getting louder. It had become obvious throughout the afternoon that David’s hearing aid batteries were slowly dying. Added to this, my voice doesn’t carry well in loud pubs and David was genuinely interested in the football.

I was drinking a no-alcohol beer which, as custom now dictates, everyone was tasting with non-committal nods. It was at this point that my wife (with more than a touch of mischief) asked me to tell David about the placebo-controlled trial of alcohol vs. no alcohol that I was involved with several years ago, before promptly disappearing from the table.

It was a big ask, but I was ready. This is my job so I should always be ready. I started talking about what the researchers wanted to know. About whether alcohol had an impact on memory, and on which part of memory. I described how they disguised the no-alcohol smell. I also – because I thought it would be fun – talked about how the research team had set up the lab to look like a pub.

Playing the opposition

This (I thought as I was rambling on) is science communication through and through. Talking about research to someone who can’t really hear me, who is distracted, and who isn’t that interested in what I’m saying. David had done it again. He’d effortlessly distilled a complex reality of my work into a single, well-illustrated moment.

The challenge of science communication isn’t tweeting for other researchers. It isn’t having other academics admiring your infographics. It isn’t making podcasts for people who already agree with you. The challenge of science communication is in reaching people who aren’t particularly interested in your research, who are distracted, and who can’t really hear what you’re saying.

Bottling it

The football was due to kick-off in 5 minutes, so I upped my game. I put a bottle of beer and no-alcohol beer together on the table to illustrate the two conditions in the trial. I now had props. How could I fail now that I had props?

“Your research findings are not just for your ideological and social allies, they are for everyone. They absolutely must be for everyone.”

Several months ago, I had a conversation with the AIM research group in Bath about getting research into the news. We had a longish discussion about the pros and cons of talking to journalists who oppose any kind of drug policy that doesn’t involve sending people to prison. On the one hand you risk supporting a kind of journalism you might object to. On the other, you risk the ‘echo chamber’ and end up talking to people whose perspectives and opinions already align with your own.

Drug use, alcohol use, and addiction cross all these barriers. When I worked in treatment services, I worked with many people who I liked, as well as many people whose beliefs and opinions I didn’t like. And regardless, they all deserved the best treatment our service could offer. In the same way, science communication should be aimed at (and accessible for) all journalists, politicians, policymakers, and treatment providers. Your research findings are not just for your ideological and social allies, they are for everyone. They absolutely must be for everyone.

The final score

So, there I am in the pub thinking that if I can’t do this well, then I should probably give up and go home. I explain to David why the research was important. I use examples that I think will resonate. I ramp up my eye contact to just shy of sociopathic. I have goddamned bottle props!

I think I have made some headway. I think that maybe, after all this time, I have re-paid some of my father-in-law’s favours. David has explained so much to me over the years that I feel duty-bound to give something back to him. And I think I might, on this occasion, just have succeeded.

He slowly nods, reflecting on what I have just said and, adjusting his hearing aid, says, “ah well, it should be a good game anyway”.

Yet another insight from David – I must try harder.

by Rob Calder

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