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Potatoes, Tomatoes and the Language of Science

Jeannie Patton and Randy Swaty  

You say “po-TAY-toe”; I say “po-TAH-toe.” We both mean spud, tater, or whatever else people call the tuber. There’s no haggling over the fact that the po is what it is. Bake it. Mash it. Fry it. It’s all the same. A po by any other name is still a po.
If only science and public relations/communications pros could agree on word and meaning so easily.
At issue: marketers and scientists often work at communications loggerheads because the former must present complex information in lay person’s plain terms so as to pass on knowledge and information, while the latter must explicate intricate and precise research findings to fellow scientists, peer reviewers, potential users and funders. There’s tension between communications professionals and scientists because language has consequences.
The scientist:  Randy Swaty, LANDFIRE Ecologist
After earning my master’s in Ecology, I returned to Northern Arizona University to visit with a former advisor. During our chat she asked, “So, what did we miss in your training?”
Where to begin? Though I had a great education and emerged quite skilled at microbial ecology, running esoteric lab equipment, doing field work, et cetera, my straight-up ecology classes didn’t prepare me for the often-sensitive collaborative nature inherent in working with others. Additionally, we were almost “coached” in lab group meetings to expect difficult attacks from hostile opponents and to defend our work rigorously. The bottom line is that though I learned to make difficult presentations, counter opposing points of view and answer tough questions, I had none of the tools I needed to communicate with the non-science public. As a result, I am at a disadvantage and often feel frustrated when interacting with those outside of my field, including TNC staff, donors, members, and interested bystanders. And I’m an easy guy to be with.
For example
A couple of years ago, our LANDFIRE team developed and published important findings regarding ecological conditions and conservation risk in the U.S. (PLoS One). We worked closely with TNC’s excellent communications teams to present our technical findings in language that the general public (whoever they are) and the national press could apprehend. You wouldn’t believe the teeth-grinding struggle. When debating some wording that would replace technical terms, marketing staff suggested that the “natural” replace “Pre-settlement vegetation.” We protested loudly (and rightly so) that “you see the word ‘natural’ on cereal boxes!”  Explaining terms such as “ecosystem alteration” without going into the “we’re all doomed” tone that the press loves is challenging.
We went back and forth, literally for weeks, choosing language that would not only uphold the integrity of the findings, but also make sense to the so-called great unwashed. We all cheered when the report was turned into a blog on the Conservancy’s Cool Green Science site.
During those weeks, I came to understand the breadth of the communications chasm between marketing and science. My insistence on precision and my training to mount a defense when under fire were countered by the need to present complex analyses to people whose scientific frames of reference simply didn’t exist. I believed that using non-scientific “common” language meant that we risked dumbing down the work, or worse – misrepresenting it altogether.
There it was, the hole in my education: how to write and talk science to non-scientists who need to understand peer-reviewed, technical reports.
The writer: Jeannie Patton, LANDFIRE Communications Lead
As the only non-scientist on a small team that researches and delivers highly technical products, analyses, tools and data to our federal partners, I head up the outreach part: publicizing our messages so that a horizon of potential audiences knows about LANDFIRE and how it can help land managers and planners.
My degrees are in English language and literature. Prior to joining the Conservancy, I was a journalist, college teacher, public relations specialist and marketing manager (not all at the same time, though it sometimes felt like it). Writing for magazines and newspapers often meant that I turned complex topic ideas and facts into stories that most readers and listeners could understand. A favorite assignment was crafting a highly technical, crazily researched piece on the Colorado River that required tons of hard work over several weeks into an article that made sense to airplane in-flight magazine readers (literally).
Complex profiles and case studies often require straightforward wording if they are to be effective. I’ve worked with Conservancy team for nine+ years, and we often struggle ourselves, navigating the tension between science and storytelling. I’m learning when and how to back down. Sometimes a tomato is a “toe-MAY-toe,” no matter how you eat it.
For example
LANDFIRE uses application stories to illustrate how our products work in the field. We all write them, using an agreed-upon template to guide our organization and consistency. While I write case studies in a journalist kind of way -- catchy lead, crisply painted paragraphs, brilliant quotes, a tidy conclusion -- they write abstracts, including citations, in language that is appropriate for techie journals, e.g. accurate, crisp, tidy, and (to me) inert and often gibberish to those outside our field. I insisted on a specific pronunciation of “toe-MAY-toe” and the team agreed: we stopped calling the pieces “stories.” Language has connotation as well as denotation; the story teller in me was satisfied, and the scientists got on with their work.  
Conclusion: as a professional communicator, I am both technician and journalist. On the Randy/Jeannie continuum, I’m the one with the crayons who has to color inside the lines. Randy draws the lines.
Enough with the metaphors.
So what?
Randy and I understand each other. We both like potatoes and tomatoes. Following are a half dozen suggestions that could help scientists and communicators get along nicely.
Randy to marketers:
  • Get to know scientists. We aren’t that bad. One of my favorite TNC marketers, Melissa Molenda, reached out to me years ago. We make an odd pair, but what can’t be overcome with beer and coffee?
  • Tag along to a science conference with a favorite scientist. Study the culture, see which people communicate well and which ones fail, and why.
  • Have science friends send you articles of interest to them. This would make the science staff consider what you might like to know, and you could ease into understanding the lexicon and culture.
Jeannie to scientists:
  • Read novels. It won’t hurt, and will expand your vocabulary beyond Latin and Greek. Maybe take a lit class or join a great books group. Anything to get you out of your unique jargon and into general language.
  • Check out (literally) books and essays by respected scientists and science writers like Richard Preston and Richard Feynman, and the brilliant, award-winning (and my personal favorite) David Quammen, and pay attention to how they parse straight-up science so that it's interesting and understandable by non-scientists.
  • Take a writer on a field trip. Mike Babler, the manager of the fire program in Colorado, invited me to join reps from the state forest service, some county land managers, and a couple of Hot Shot fire fighters on a day-long excursion to areas that burned near Colorado Springs. I learned more about science application on large landscapes in that one day than I have in years of reading technical journals. 
Bon Appétit.