You know what I love?
I love any kind of fact. Silly ones, random ones, vital ones. I like that I can hang my hat on them. Facts are honest. What would we do without facts? What would we do if we couldn't CONVEY facts?
One of the reasons I started this little consultancy of mine is already in my mission statement, but to break it down even further: I'm doing this because for the most part, scientists really, REALLY suck at talking to people about the facts of their work, how they do it, and why it matters. When you level with them, they'll almost always admit that they need help getting their message out.
Why is communication such a big hurdle? Despite the ridiculous variety of information conduits out there, why are people scratching their heads, wondering which way is up?
An example: recently, I read an op-ed someone had written about a certain fishery and their supposed lack of cooperation with a certain government body. I was frustrated because as I read it, I knew that the author was twisting the truth, and despite claims to the contrary, I knew financial gain was their motivation, not a desire to communicate the reality of the situation.
It's ridiculous. This person is going to get eyeballs solely because they're piping up, but they don't get to go unchallenged: I shan't allow it. I dislike lopsided conversations. And I. Love. Facts.
When I decide to write a summary or rebuttal, the usual drill is, I pull primary source information so I can boil down the facts and present some cogent, bite-sized pieces of reality, all the better to drop hard-hitting truthbombs. Sometimes it's a really quick process and I can find everything I need with a few Google searches. Usually, though, it's not that simple, because the reason people don't successfully convey what's going on is because they don't know what's going on.
As I'm browsing a government agency's site that should contain much of what I need, I am viscerally reminded that 1.) this agency's website is terrible 2.) the information I'm looking for doesn't officially exist on paper 3.) all government websites seem to be equally awful and 4.) this project between gov't and fishers has been ongoing for at least three years, making points one and two all the more infuriating.
So I pull out my secret weapon: a cellular telephone.
True story: I hate talking on the phone. When I was a kid, I was too shy to call anyone. Dialing the grocery store to ask what time they closed was so traumatic I would be in tears. To this day, I'd rather write 10 emails than make one phone call.
There's no choice, though. With bile rising in my throat, I start making calls. I call everyone I know who could have a clue about what's actually going on, and who might be able to get me some hard data.
It's really amazing how much further you get with a phone call than an email. Lo and behold, I start getting some answers. Not the exact ones I need, but I can see the edges. The process has turned into investigative journalism, which is just fine. On any given day, my job title could safely be "journalist."
I feel like I'm really pulling back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of WaterMullen here by saying this, but seriously, the first and often best way to start the process of transforming an information vacuum into something useful, something filled with delicious, delicious facts, is talking to people.
SO WHY DOESN'T IT HAPPEN? Why aren't people talking it out? There's not just silence across sectors; sometimes people in the same department are ships passing quietly in the night.
Honestly, I have no one-and-done explanation as to why it's so hard to talk, but hey everyone, keep not talking to each other because I really like my job.
I'll ask two groups about the paucity of exchange and everyone scratches their heads and mumbles, "well, I meant to talk to them about it and then I got busy..." That's the first and most common issue. Straight up, unadulterated and uncomplicated business.
Sometimes the issue is, everyone is huddled in their own little corners. It's a lot easier to preach to the choir, or to get buried in work than to go outside one's comfort zone and engage the other side with honest discourse.
Maybe even more important than honest: respectful.
It's super hard to figure out what's really going on when everyone is screaming at one another, and it's even worse when misinformation is being screamed.
I think one reason I'm good at my job is because I treat the people with whom I work with deference. I respect the communities and what they do, I respect their need to make a living, and I respect how hard these agencies work. I obviously love the world of marine science, and want to keep it safe. I'm also a neutral party and facts are my currency. Perhaps, also, because I've had to overcome a lot of my own dread about conversations, I'm especially sensitive to the nuances of others'.
If I can have a phone call (or even better, an in-person meeting) with someone, demonstrate my good intentions, show them I'm interested in what they have to say, and can convey my trustworthiness? Wow. It's the hat trick of getting shiz done.
The next secret ingredient is, you really can't fake any of it. People are smart, and bullsh*t is exhausting. I do have good intentions, I am interested, I'm not out to screw anyone and I want people to know what's happening. That's the alchemy of trust, and trust is what makes communication easy(ish) and effective.
I have been screamed at not infrequently. That's OK. I get it. You've been burned in the past. People have lied, and they've twisted your words. There are a lot of people out there, like that op-ed author, who have no interest in dialogue; they just want a megaphone. I get that, too. It's fun to hear yourself talk.
Seriously, though. I know both how hard it is, and how important it is. If we're living in the information age, but we can't share that information, then we're stuck in a soupy, borderless wasteland populated by circular logic and feelings. Blech.
The good news is, people are starting to get it. Science communication is a hot field right now. Also, my rates are very reasonable. But, if I'm not around to help out, I have a homeopathic prescription to fill the "what...?" fact talking void with sound and fury:
1. Recognize that you need to be communicative.
2. Recognize that you're probably not being as clear as you think you are. (This is something I still struggle with in my own life.)
3. Forgive others and yourself for having lots going on, then keep trying to make time for dialogue.
4. Don't be angry if you're a specialist and you have no clue what to say to people; you don't have to do all the talking/writing. Ask for help. Find skilled translators. You do you.
5. Curb your frustration. (This is also something I still struggle with on occasion.) Be reasonable and don't shout, because when you're irritated, that's all people hear--the message gets lost.
6. Accept that you might be wrong, or could be misinformed. You don't know everything and you don't have to.
7. Respect those who go out on a limb to interact with different groups. (I see disrespect all the time when agency folks come to industry events, and they get shouted out of the room. C'mon, everyone. They're doing their best.)
8. Be honest, be clear, and if you're getting on a soapbox, respect other people enough to provide good information.
9. If you don't know, TELL PEOPLE YOU DON'T KNOW.
I feel like those nine items could be useful for healing any number of the world's ills; they'll also definitely help start conversations among very different groups, and foster the exchange of real information.
OK, a little kumbaya there at the end, but hey; it's a blog. And after all, the views and opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect reality.