Why is the Why Difficult for Scientists?

By Karen McLeod

Oct 7, 2014

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By Karen McLeod. Published Oct. 7, 2014
Categories: Communication, Reflection
Tags: academia, advice, advocacy, bias, context, credibility, culture, finding your why, inspiration, motivation, passion, perception, So What?, training, trust

Being a scientist is more than a job – it’s a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of interacting with the world. For some of you, it is the best job in the world!  Our passion is clearly important, and yet … we so rarely share it. Why?

This is the first in a series about scientists communicating the ‘why’ of their work. In the coming weeks, I’ll share other scientists’ reflections, insights, and stories on the topic. Perhaps yours? Post a comment or send me a note, and I’ll incorporate your perspective into future posts.

Why Ask Why

We’ve emphasized the importance of sharing your ‘why’ in past posts. If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?
Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was recently the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important. I’ll dig into this more in subsequent posts – it’s fascinating!

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

Now, it’s your turn to speak. Have you talked about the ‘why’ of your science? What’s worked? What hasn’t? And why did you decide to speak up?

This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, April 2017.

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