Written by Emeline Rougeaux, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Emeline is an avid proponent of sustainable living and enjoys travelling and being outdoors.
Last month we had the pleasure of receiving Dr Giles Yeo, genetic endocrinologist, for a talk on Public Engagement here at ICH. You might know Dr Yeo from his appearances on BBC shows such as Trust Me, I’m A Doctor or Horizon. When he is not discussing the dirty truths behind clean eating or whether genes make you fat on screen, you can find him studying the brain control of body weight at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Yeo opened his presentation by stating that, as scientists, we have to engage with the media especially today. His research has revealed that humans have little choice with regards to obesity and that genetics have a big influence on our bodies’ weight and food behaviours. Do the public always believe him? Unfortunately, no. Yet, as said by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, whom Dr Yeo quotes, “when different experiments give you the same results, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So, why is there such a lack of faith in science from the public?
According to Dr Yeo, we often end up having to frame science against faith. Some scientists believe it is not about faith, but in reality, all of us have to rely on faith every day. He gives the example of trusting that our car brakes will work when we press on them, we trust that experts designed them and tested them so that other non-experts can use them with the belief that they will work when needed. Similarly, we trust that a plane will fly (using something other than magic). While as scientists we understand that scientific consensus is key, it takes a long time to obtain. We all know how long it can take to go from a research problem, to findings, and then on to a possible solution. The problem, according to Dr Yeo, is that humans are impatient and this creates a vacuum of knowledge, which gets filled with alternative facts.
As a result, we get the likes of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Eleanor Laura Davan Mills (Deliciously Ella). They sell ideas and products claiming certain health benefits, which although not supported by any scientific expertise or evidence, are gobbled up and regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of followers. Why do so many people believe what to others is so obviously false, Dr Yeo asks? According to him, it depends on who is saying it. When people with power or fame profess certain facts, it is difficult for the public to know who to believe. We should not, however, put these sorts of beliefs down to stupidity or ignorance, but should instead engage with these people and the public to discuss the evidence base. The best way to do this is through the media, and this is why we should engage with it when given the opportunity.
As scientists and researchers, we need to stand up for the truth. How we do this is important. Dr Yeo finds the perfect way to illustrate his point with one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (like me, it turns out he is, a fan).
How should we structure our message? How can we speak to non-experts via the media? How we frame the message is important. Below are Dr Yeo’s suggestions on how we can do this effectively:
• Why? How? What? are good ways to frame the message. Why are you doing what you are doing? How have you chosen to answer the question? What have you found out?
• This framing can actually be used in all sorts of settings (grant applications, social events, etc.), but the amount of information you provide will vary between these and is critical.
• Difficulty: the type of audience will determine the level of difficulty of engagement with ‘academic specialist’ being the least difficult to engage with and ‘the general public’ the most difficult.
• Simplicity does not equal wrong: when we simplify the information we have, we make sure it remains correct.
• The medium chosen for your message will determine how much editorial control you have. Ranging from complete to no editorial control we have: speaking, writing, social media, radio and TV. Simplifying the message yourself in advance, by preparing your how-why-what elevator pitch, will allow you to keep more control.
Scientists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work, particularly to wider audiences and the public. Dr Yeo has found that television is an effective way to do this. While not all of us will be following this route with our research, he believes many of us will at one point in our careers be subject to interviews or invited to speak on television. His advice is to be ready, and what better way to do this than to practice explaining your research as ‘an elevator pitch’. Being able to deliver your research in a succinct form and in layman’s terms is a skill that will help not only with public and social media interaction, but also with career networking and job interviews.
Television is one of many ways for a researcher to engage with the public. In addition to television, Dr Yeo also gives public lectures, uses social media (although he highlights this can be a useful tool or a curse) and occasionally writes articles in newspapers such as the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail. Attending a writing or journalism course during your PhD is great way to learn how to communicate your research in an accessible and compelling way, which may also help with grant writing and cover letters amongst other things.
In conclusion, we should all take part in public engagement. Not because our funders require it, or because it looks good on a CV, but to uphold the truth and better guide the public in a media sea of information. Preparation is key, so keep your elevator pitches ready because you never know when someone might stick a microphone in your face.
Also, a special thank you to Shikta Das, Caroline Fraser and Emma Butcher for organising the talk.
[All images are from Dr Giles Yeo’s presentation at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health on the 23rd of January 2019]