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A Wilder View: Communicating effectively about science

Posted at 12:07 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 14:07:18-05

MISSOULA — Scientists are making headlines with new directives related to the COVID-19 pandemic every day so, it’s more important than ever to have an understanding of basic scientific method.

“There’s a huge amount of people that doesn’t understand science. They don’t trust science. And it means people are starting to disregard the process,” observed University of Montana Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology Doug Emlan.

Even before the pandemic began there were scientists working to make their research more relatable to the general public. Communicating science effectively is a complex task and an acquired skill.

“Societally we have a problem that fewer and fewer people understand or appreciate science. And I think the pandemic is a beacon of hope,” Emlan said.

“All of the solutions are coming from science -- no matter politics or where you come from -- if you want a vaccine where does it come from? Science, science, science," he continued.

Most scientists are used to writing for other scientists. Emlan’s strategy is to translate research by taking the science and making it as direct and as accessible to people as he can.

“If nobody understands what you did you kind of didn’t do it,” Emlan said. “Let’s figure out which ideas and which concepts matter the most and let’s figure out how much biology we have to bring in - in order to tell those stories well.”

Throughout his career, Emlan has adjusted his writing and teaching style countless times based on the critiques of his audience, “you can’t get better if you’re not willing to people being critical.”

He explained that collaboration with other scientists, and the public, plays a vital role in his work.

“There’s something special in the connections you get no matter how world-class,” he told MTN News. “That’s what makes UM really special."

Emlan noted that with the ongoing pandemic, University of Montana professors are also learning new ways to effectively teach science.

“It forced us out of our comfort zones and made us -- now we had to learn how to use it,” Emlan concluded.