The Challenges of Effective Communication

Cafe Scientifique is a British-birthed public meeting concept “where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.”

Bozeman’s Cafe Scientifique meets most months. Montana State University is a science-focused institution, so we have great speakers in all manner of scientific disciplines. We meet in a historic downtown building. Snacks, drinks and coffee are served — all free, except for the alcohol. Most of the audience are scientists and science students; as far as I can tell, I’m the only historian that comes.

The most recent Cafe Scientifique was originally billed as a talk about mosquito-born diseases. Amid little buzz about the topic, a second emphasis was added: “… and the Scientist’s Role in a Post-Fact Media Landscape.”

That did the trick; we had a full house.

About half of the presentation and lengthy discussion focused on our current post-fact world and, in particular, the challenges scientists face in effectively communicating their work to the public. I found myself smiling as scientists lamented the difficulty of dispensing with the complexities and nuances of scientific research and language in order to make publicly-digestible, truthful statements about a multitude of important issues, such as climate change.

I can identify with that, scientist though I am not.

More than one noted how, as persons embedded within academia, they simply don’t know how to communicate well with the general public. Yet there seems to be a consensus in America’s scientific community that more than ever, scientists now have a responsibility to bring truth into a public discourse in which truth is often of little value, and frequently dismissed.

Yet the challenge applies to all of us who value truth: how do we effectively communicate truth in public conversation in today’s post-fact environment? How do we distill truths in such a way as to make an impact in a world darkened by rampant lies and misinformation?

The snacks we munched on during the presentation and discussion were great, although the challenges of effective communication were not solved that day.

I did, however, walk away with the door prize: a really cool MSU Klean Kanteen water bottle, pictured above.

If you join me this summer for one of our Montana Nurturing Faith Experiences, you may notice it in my backpack.

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