A personal take on the curiously one-way science communication panel at the 8th HLF

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This blog entry is about what the science communication panel at the 8th Heidelberg Laureate Forum wasn’t. (About, that is.) And while I’m in inverted mode, I’ll start with a disclaimer. No, I don’t have a magic recipe for making science communication interactive, to make sure that the communication goes both ways. I do enjoy some of the interactions that my science communication activities bring about, but I find some other kinds of interaction not at all constructive. Notably those instances where the interaction is not about jointly engaging with science, but more about fending off input that, in the most unpleasant cases, is anti-science, in particular in those areas where science has become polarized and politicized, Covid-19 and climate change being prominent examples.

So yes, I’ve often felt some dissonance between my own practice and the official party-line at events where for instance politicians or other functionaries talk about science communication as necessarily two-way, a matter of listening as well as talking, “at eye-level”, in German “auf Augenhöhe”. On those occasions, I often want to break in with “It’s not that easy!” I want to argue that there is at least some natural imbalance when there is a dialogue between someone who is a scientist in a given field and someone who isn’t. I want to say that one-way-formats do have their uses – books, videos, lectures.

That is why I was quite surprised to find myself on the other side of this particular issue when listening to the panel discussion on science communication, “Scientists Get Creative to Engage the Public in Science”, on the first day of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. The panel was moderated by Susan D’Agostino, and featured Talithia Williams of Harvey-Mudd College, Google’s Vint Cerf, LMU’s Jürgen Richter-Gebert and Quanta Magazine senior editor Bill Andrews.

It happened gradually. Vint Cerf being introduced by Susan D’Agostino with a reference to a recent video that Cerf had done, including some quite impressive graphics apparently. Williams introduced mentioning her TedX talk video, and then her book. And as things went on, I wondered: All of this just happens to be one-way communication. Why is “the public” present almost exclusively in a passive role here? Why is everybody here almost exclusively about talking to the public, not with them?

Once that thought was there, it didn’t go away. Vint Cerf’s motivation to do science communication because he enjoys transferring his own thoughts into other people’s heads. Classic one-way, but to be fair, Cerf’s official job title is “Chief Internet Evangelist”, and evangelism is usually not a very interactive profession.

Then a promising start from Bill Andrews, who’d recommended that scientists dive into science communication e.g. by joining Twitter. Social media, interactivity! One of the advantages of Twitter, Andrews went on, was that there you can learn more about the world [drum roll, wait for it]




– of the others who are doing science communication, who “also put their stuff out there”. So close, but no cigar!

So on the plus side, there are interesting future topics for discussion, whether at a future HLF or at other venues. And of course the topics that the science communication panel did talk about, were quite legitimate. Yes, it’s always a good idea to start by defining your target audience, and too few science communicators do it. And yes, there are interesting aspects to explore when it comes to the use of metaphors in science communication.

So yes, once that panel discussion is online, I definitely encourage you to watch. And may be you’ll have none of the associations that I had, and be engrossed in the topics that the panelists did talk about. For my part, once I’d started wondering why the focus was on one-way communication, I was unable to see the discussion from any other perspective. Luckily, this blog is naturally two-way: What do you think? What are good formats for science communication that is not one-way, but interactive? I genuinely want to know. Because I suspect that my own science communication is also much too one-way, and could use some sensible interactivity. Feel free to engage with me either here or on Twitter.

Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit. Pössel bloggt, ist Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher, und schreibt regelmäßig für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.

1 comment

  1. Dear Markus Possel,
    You have raised a very important question. I have been communicating science in various modes from the Planetarium, Bengaluru, India, for over two decades. I felt that the problem is only in India; partly because we are taught to keep silent in classrooms. Asking questions was forbidden at least in our school days. But I encourage the listeners to raise their voice. I have taught basics of astronomy for over 25 years for different age groups. First couple of sessions are “one-way” then I trigger them to come up with questions . At the end of about 20 sessions they feel quite at home. Here are some tips –
    1.make a small mistake while writing a formula on the board and pause (some one will point it out- make sure you praise him / her for pointing it out)
    2. Ask a question which may look silly (for example, how do you fix east)- and allow them to come up with (wrong) answers.
    However in the online discussions this is impossible. Also they may write something in the chat which cannot be read if you are sharing a ppt . The moderator will have to read it out
    The fun associated with wrong answers in the question answer session is something that brings life to the class room. For example I demonstrated the retrograde motion and asked what may be the reason. One boy answered “perhaps there is a blackhole which is distracting the planet”

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