Communicating complexity

Second nature: communicating complexity

Lawrence M. Krauss draws on his experience to reflect on the value and the challenges of science communication.

Lawrence M. Krauss is the author of ten popular science books, the latest of which was published in March 2017. Photo Credit: Jena Sprau
By Gaia Donati

As the Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in the US, theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss organises public events that attract thousands of attendees. People from all over the world fly in to learn about the origins of the universe and life, and about issues relating to consciousness, culture and technology. Krauss will be speaking at the Science & Cocktails party of the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists held in Copenhagen 26-30 June 2017.

“The public is fascinated by science,” says Krauss. Of course, it is much easier to discover science now than it was in the past. The web provides easy access to information – and to misinformation. “We teach science as if it’s a set of facts, but it isn’t – it’s a process for deriving facts,” says Krauss. “This is what’s really important to teach people, because then they’ll have the tools to go through the web and tell sense from nonsense.”

When asked about the value of communicating science to the general public, Krauss is as spontaneous as he is convincing. “Science is a vital part of our culture, it’s a vital part of how we understand our place in the universe and the context of who we are,” he says. “How can we not want to communicate these ideas that change our perspective of our place in the universe?”

As a young person, he admired those who wrote books about science and other scientists. Later on, he felt like returning the favour for new generations. “I knew from an early age that I was drawn to physics and to the fundamental understanding of nature, but at the same time I’ve always been strongly interested in people,” he explains. “I never could just be confined to academia; it wasn’t [in] my character.”

With a versatile profile as a physicist, public speaker and prolific popular science writer, Krauss also recalls his work as a young demonstrator at a science museum: [It] “vitally important for me to learn how to understand what people were interested in and what they weren’t – like a trial by fire.” Krauss recognises that explaining complex scientific concepts to an audience of non-scientists is prone to several traps – particularly for researchers who have little experience of communicating with the general public. One such trap is to lapse into jargon “and to not remember where the public is coming from.”

Krauss believes an effective, but often-neglected, technique is to convey one’s genuine enthusiasm for a given topic. He also feels it is equally important for professional science communicators and journalists “to understand the context of what you’re writing about, to not serve as merely a public relations tool for scientists.”

Journalists are making a mistake, according to Krauss, if they “feel that they have to make every result seem as if it’s Earth-shattering,” because the public may get the wrong perception of a research area. “Things can be interesting without being Earth-shattering,” he points out. Sometimes real scientific progress follows a sequence of baby steps. And while scepticism is crucial, it is dangerous for reporters to assume that there are two sides to every story. As Krauss puts it: “You can always find someone who says that the Earth is flat. So you have to be careful not to present things as if they’re controversial when they aren’t”. This is particularly true in the case of climate change.

Krauss describes himself as “pretty forgiving” on the whole, but he has “one requirement for science communication. The only thing that you cannot do is knowingly mislead. There’s a big temptation to do that because you want to please people; you don’t want to disappoint them.” When asked about something with which they are unfamiliar, everyone should be willing to admit that they don’t know the answer. “It isn’t a negative statement,” says Krauss. “ ‘I don’t know; let’s find out.’ Then science becomes a process of discovery, and that’s wonderful.”