How Children Can Make You A Better Communicator

Scientists are awful communicators.

Not all of them, of course (physicians who interact with patients tend to be better than bench scientists), but as a profession, they’re just not great at explaining complicated matters to the general public.

(Here are three reasons scientists are bad communicators.)

Alan Alda, the actor best known as Hawkeye Pierce from the television show M*A*S*H, has been frustrated with scientists for years. It started as an 11-year-old, when he asked a science teacher what a flame was. The teacher responded with one word: “Oxidation.”

“It’s just giving it another name,” he told The New York Times last week. “It’s like saying, ‘Well, a flame is Fred.’ And that really doesn’t get you anywhere.”


Actor Alan Alda


He wanted to change that, so he began working with officials at Long Island’s Stony Brook University, where he helped establish the Center for Communicating Science. According to The Times:

“Then he thought, why not also create a contest where anyone — including scientists — could offer an explanation of a flame, and recruit 11-year-olds to judge which one is the best?

That is what he and Stony Brook did, setting up a Web site,, to collect entries, which can be video, graphics or just words.”

His plan is brilliant.

For years, I’ve been teaching spokespersons to lose the jargon using the “12-Year-Old Nephew Rule.” The idea is the same as Alda’s – that spokespersons should test their messages by running them past their younger relatives.

Here’s a video on the topic:

This is no academic matter. Science is important, and government policies on everything from climate change to teaching evolution in schools hinge, in large measure, on a broad public understanding of the best available science. Recent polls show scientists not only losing many important public debates, but also becoming lest trusted as credible authorities.

Communicating clearly won’t solve all of those problems. But it’s an important part of the solution.

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