Lesson 1: Scientists And The General Public Are Like Oil And Water

As activists, we are often presented with the challenge of taking an exceptionally complex subject, reducing it to language that the general public can easily understand, and presenting it in the quickest way possible, in order to meet the time constraints of most Americans. An example is creating a thirty second video used to educate the public about a plume of toxic waste in a ground water aquifer, like the one we released last year in Burbank, California.

For this video I was forced to cram over a million pages of EPA documentation into six sentences, because after thirty seconds of video the average American will stop paying attention. Obviously, I was required to leave out a lot of information and constrain myself to bullet points. However, the video quickly stated my case, achieved 44,000 views in less than twenty-four hours, and was very effective. In the post I used to promote the video I included several links to media sourcing, and EPA records, for those that wished to conduct their own research. In a sense, the video was a commercial directing people to the rest of the information I had gathered.

During the release, a former EPA official, now a contractor, came to the page to scientifically nitpick the video, even though the information he was citing was in the links at the bottom of the post. His statements had the effect of appearing to discredit our film piece. In activism this matters, because when one is dealing with a large percentage of everyday Americans, those who do not have PhD’s, when someone who has a PhD comes along, the lesser educated people will defer to the expert in the group, because after all, “The person is a doctor!” Yet, later in private e-mails, this very same man stated that my information was accurate, so he ended up misleading a lot of people, with his criticisms.

Another example is my recent article explaining what parts per trillion (ppt) means, meant to help people who are not water experts visualize what ppt is in real world terms. In this article, I used about six sentences, the same that I would use in a video, which basically worked as an analogy. Yet, right in the middle of running a campaign a woman named Madi, who has a Masters degree in who cares, approached me to tell me that I had no idea what I was talking about because I stated that the GenX levels in the Cape Fear river equaled about a teaspoon in 21,500,000 gallons of water.

Of course, she’s also nitpicking because what I did was use a conversion of micrograms to one drop unit, so the levels in the river aren’t literally a teaspoon, but scaling the ppt calculation using a drop unit provides people who are not water experts a way to quickly understand the scale of the mg/L calculation. The results of her criticisms was to make it appear as if I don’t know what I am talking about, when I do, and it equally fooled average people into thinking my calculations weren’t correct, or that I was somehow being disingenuous.

These scientists who walk into groups of layman and start dissecting every point seem to have almost no experience communicating with large cross sections of the population, or what it’s like running a campaign to citizens with education levels ranging from the guy who dropped out of school in eighth grade to sell weed, to the woman who has ten PhD’s from three Ivy League schools. Activists are presented with the option to either go hyper-technical and risk losing the ability communicate with average people, or we can communicate in a simple manner and risk having our words minced by Bill Nye The Science Guy. There is no in between.

For an activist, this phenomenon can be maddening, because no matter what one does, they’re screwed. More often than not, a campaign will be chugging along just fine until Mr. Big Brain shows up to point out, in an irritating nasally voice, “to fully understand this concept we have to be extra careful to pay attention to the molecular weight of a carbon molecule in a vacuum fluctuation,” and then all bets are off. If I could part the clouds and speak to every egghead scientist on the planet I would remind them that not everyone in this country is operating on their level, that scientists propensity to split hairs — and atoms — has no effect but disrupt important public information campaigns.

To put it into layman’s terms, scientists and the general public are like oil and water, or a terrible terrible salad dressing, in that they do not mix, or at least should not mix in an audience for an activism campaign. For five years I have wrestled with this concept, desperately searching for ways to get around it, even including those aforementioned advanced scientific links in the bottoms of the posts, but it turns out that even scientists only have about a thirty second attention span and make no effort to read the fine print, either.

Someday I’ll find the answer, a perfect mix of simple and complex but until that day happens, us activists, or anyone else who deals with the public and complex subject matter, will struggle endlessly to get their messages out.

In closing, I believe that Marty McFly said it best when he said, “What the hell ‘s a Jiggawatt?!”

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