Every point PhysioProf made is absolutely true - in a technical sense. But when explaining science to laypeople, you often use imprecise terms and not-quite-right analogies. As a physician, I frequently have to describe the embryologic development of the kidney to parents using my hands and whatever I can sketch on a paper towel. My fists become the collections of cells destined to become kidney (left hand) and ureter (right hand) while I talk about signals back and forth between my two fists. The digits of each hand represent the multitude of molecular cross-talk between cell masses, and they leave the fist and poke the other hand as needed. These signals get crossed up on one side or the other, and a whole variety of abnormalities can result. The parents I am talking with do not need (or want) to know all of the molecules involved! They want to know why I got a bunch of xrays of the "normal" parts of their child's urinary tract. They want to know why their child is not normal and what impact these abnormalities will have on their lives.
In my errant post, I stated the following:
Cells are bags of fluid surrounded by membranes. These membranes have transporters that let stuff in and out. Almost every membrane in the body is freely permeable to water.
Water moves back and forth across these membranes to maintain osmolar balance. Osmolality is the total number of molecules in fluid. It does not matter what the molecule might be; our cells just want the amount of molecules relative to water to be the same everywhere in the body, even if the molecule is K inside the cell and Na outside.
It is true that membranes would not be freely permeable to water without aquaporins which form water channels; however, most membranes in the body contain sufficient water channels to allow water to move freely through them and maintain osmotic equilibrium throughout the body. Yes, I skipped some information in there, but it hardly changes the original point in explaining the issue. I described the concept of osmotic equilibrium as the cells wanting the amount of molecules relative to water to be the same. Now, I seriously doubt that any cell in my body, individually, "wants" anything (although certain areas of my brain are desirous of shoes and electronic gizmos, but I digress). No, the cells are passive participants in this process; the whole body is geared toward osmotic equilibrium. But my parents would not understand the "real" explanation, and my dad has a PhD (French History- that's how I got my first name). They can grasp the concept that this concentration of stuff in water should be the same inside and outside the cell. Yes, I committed the sin of anthropomorphism of the body's cells, but this approach can be effective as a teaching tool and a literary device.
As scientists, we need to better communicate facts to the general public. However, most folks are not ready for science-speak. That's why we need to learn more of the art of crafting and telling stories. Think about the earliest human communications we know- ancient pre-verbal humans left pictures on cave walls of animals and the hunt. We can only guess the exact motivation now; but we can still see and feel the story.
A number of scientists with good communication skills kvetch about the public’s lack of literacy. Most seem focused on educational policy and getting “the facts” out there in an accessible way. If we provide the data, the public will “get it.”
Dr. Olson debunks this attitude almost immediately. Through amusing stories of his experiences in acting and film classes, as well as life under the Hollywood sign, he illustrates a major problem: most of the public engages in issues through feelings, not through thought
Now, a true media star (Sorry, Randy- he trumps you) has made this problem a mission. As detailed in TheScientist.com on August 5, Alan Alda initiated The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. America's favorite fictional surgeon and the host of Scientific American Frontiers says:
"The affect, facial expression body language -- these are things that you wouldn't think are part of a scientific presentation," he says. "Emotion is so important. In scientific communication emotion is probably trained out of us, but there's no reason why it can't be included. Science is a great detective story, especially when you're talking to the public. You want them to get involved in this interesting, emotional tangle."
The article in The Scientist.com (by Daniel Grushkin) includes a YouTube video of improvisation exercises used in a one-day workshop put on by this group. At the beginning of the workshop, participants have to explain their research to a lay-audience - often with unsatisfying results. The final exam? Explaining your research to an imaginary audience. Oh, and the group then should be able to guess who that audience might be:
At the session's conclusion the students re-explain their research. This time they pretend to have an imaginary audience -- for example, one explains his science to a make-believe child, another stands before an invisible congressional committee. The rest of the group guesses the identity of the audience, and gets it right every time. It's a remarkable transformation.
When we blog, anyone with an internet connection may find our words and be part of our audience. Every time I interact with my patients and their families, I try to find better ways to tell the story that they need to hear, be it why their condition happened, what the future may hold, or why some 16-year-old kid should straighten up and take his blood pressure medications. Just as one never learns everything in science and medicine, in part because every minute brings a new discovery to light, one never knows the correct way to explain something to everyone. I keep trying in my office. And I will keep trying here.
Oh, and please feel free to comment both to increase the Sci-Q of my posts (thank you, PhysioProf) and to let me know if I need to try and tell the tale again. Because I am happy to keep writing and talking and gesturing until I get it right for you!
Images courtesy of PhotoXpress.com.