10/05/2016 - 10:00 - Sala Charles Darwin

How to see a ghost, think like a molecule, and write like a scientist: A new model of the relationship between science and communication

Scientific sessions

Russ Hodge

Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine. Berlin, Germany

Russ Hodge, Science writer MDC (since 2007), author of 8 popular books, hundreds of articles on science and a series of cartoons on molecular biology, head of Office of Information and Public Affairs (EMBL) 1997-2006, author of the blog

Abstract of the talk:

Scientific communication is much more than a tool to transmit information to your peers and others. Communication and research are connected at a more profound level through the models that give everything in science its meaning. These models are complex architectures that individual scientists build in their minds and constantly revise through learning and experience. Models govern how researchers approach a system, the questions they ask, and the way they interpret its behavior. Scientists create detailed models of specific systems they are studying and integrate them into larger theories such as evolution, more fundamental principles of science, and more basic cognitive patterns that we use in our daily lives. This process is crucial to success, but it is poorly understood, and rarely discussed in any systematic way during a scientist's education. Many scientists construct and use models without really understanding how they work. This makes it hard to see how they powerfully shape the ways we perceive systems, generate hypotheses, and interpret results. Data may be trying to tell us things we can't hear because models act as invisible filters, emphasizing familiar information and patterns while hiding others. They also disrupt communication, when a researcher fails to link a story to the models that give it meaning, in a way an audience can understand.

Understanding the structure and invisible architecture of a model requires translating it into language, images, mathematics, or another system of representation. This process is necessary to communicate our ideas, but it also has a more basic function: to structure our thinking. It exposes the connections between ideas so that we can check their logical consistency, discover hidden assumptions and patterns, apply new ones and generate new scientific questions. These are usually important steps along the way to new discoveries. Communication turns scientific ideas into something like the pieces on a boardgame, where we can analyze each move, clarify the rules and try out new strategies. In this talk I will show how communicative tools can be applied to the "mental game" of science, to help scientists improve both their writing and their research.