Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to write a lay scientific summary

B.A. Bell and M. Ute
Esperanto Academy of Sciences, New Haven, USA

The professional survival of scientists in modern life imposes the necessity of outstanding skills in a wide range of human activities, including business management, accounting, oratory, handcrafting, manipulation and repairing of small machines, computing, invention and refutation of theories, and writing of scientific reports for highly specialized journals (see CurrRevol 22/05/09, CurrRevol 27/05/09), among others. In addition, twenty-first century scientists need to know how to explain their daily work to the lay public, being on risk of global isolation and virtual vanishing when not doing that properly. However, few experimental approaches have been taken to improve the methods by which scientists present a summary of their investigations to the general public. Here, we have performed an in situ analysis of public perception of science, intended to build a very basic vocabulary to be used by scientists when communicating science to lay people. Informative booths were displayed, on a Sunday bright morning, all around the country on public parks, mall parking lots, and the surroundings of baseball stadiums. Normal people of all ages, races and sexual preferences, was randomly selected by attendant volunteers and challenged with Dr. Bean’s Comprehension Test for commonly used scientific terms, that includes five hundred words and abbreviations (from ABS to Zootype) that everybody should know by heart. The response of the people was monitored as the combination of induced cortical brain activity (measured by standard electrophysiology techniques) and eyebrow’s admiring spontaneous movement (determined by careful visual examination with an OJIMETRIXTM device), which were processed using the UnderStand? software. In addition, a modified prototype of the Eisenbud’s Psychic PollaroidTM thoughtography camera (see CurrRevol 25/11/09) was used during the tests to better discriminate for false positives. Results obtained from subjects that ended the session by sudden fainting were discharged for further analysis, and reliable recorded data were processed in an iterative manner to incorporate into a database those words which really meant something for the lay people, as scored by the UnderStand? algorithm. After two rounds of selection, no words remained in the database under creation, demonstrating that the five hundred scientific words used in our study are not as commonly used by people as expected. Furthermore, our results indicate that either scientists do not wander around public premises on bright Sunday mornings, or that scientists also ignore the real meaning of most scientific words. To sustain this conclusion, a selected cohort of expert scientists from different disciplines were offered to be challenged with Dr. Bean’s Comprehension Test. Unfortunately, the chosen scientists refused to participate in the experiment on the basis of jeopardizing seriously the future funding of their research. We conclude with the pessimistic feeling that is really difficult for scientists to communicate their investigations not only to the general public, but also to their own colleagues. Experiments are ongoing to test the ability of lay people to explain, in a brief summary, the interest of their working activities to scientists. Meanwhile, we suggest to scientists to check the list of the five hundred most commonly used words in the English language (see 500words), to incorporate as many as these words as possible in their scientific summaries for lay people.

No comments:

Post a Comment