Beyond the Classroom: Communicating to non-scientists

February 27, 2018 | Students

By Varad Dabke

UGA’s Dr. Marshall Shepherd presenting the 2018 Founder’s Day Lecture

Beyond the Classroom: Communicating to non-scientists

In talking with Institute of Government faculty, I’ve had the chance to see firsthand one of the most pressing challenges in providing state and local services: clarity in communication. Making sure that a client is best equipped to read, assess and execute the details of a technical diagram or redevelopment plan is critical to making long-term services most effective. The consensus shows that if a client can make an informed decision, then the Institute’s departments too can better allocate their resources. But how can we best present information that is easiest to understand? The same question could be asked about how we at the Institute of Government communicate the impact of our work to external audiences, including the general public.

A University of Georgia professor has some ideas on the value in helping the public better understand complex technical or scientific issues in creative ways. His challenge as an academic serving the public runs perfectly parallel to the Institute’s challenge in maintaining effective communication for governmental service. The professor, well-known UGA meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, addressed “The Challenges of Communicating Science to Non-Scientists” in this year’s Founders Day Lecture. He started the lecture by discussing one of the most relatable of examples in scientific literacy, weather forecasts. Who knew that even something as simple as reading the weather forecast could lead to a world of misinterpretation?

Dr. Shepherd posed what seemed like an easy question: what does it mean when the forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain? Like most in the audience, I was unable to interpret the forecast and I realized how much we take these seemingly easy-to-understand concepts for granted. Most of us didn’t realize that “30 percent chance of rain” doesn’t mean that the coverage area is guaranteed rain 30 percent of the time. It means that your local meteorologist has a 30 percent confidence that it may rain in a specific part of town within the coverage area. Sounds tricky, right?

That’s the challenge Dr. Shepherd wanted to explain. He asserts that academics have a responsibility that extends beyond just their research. For him, it is the researcher’s duty to synthesize, adapt and explain their science to the public. That end goal is one of the reasons Dr. Shepherd hosts a show on the Weather Channel every Sunday called “Weather Geeks.” The show serves as a way for viewers to learn about scientific issues in a more informal manner. When explaining interesting stories on anything from the most ideal fishing weather to preparations for living in stormy areas, he avoids using jargon and complicated scientific phrasing that can discourage many people from learning about pressing scientific issues. In separating themselves from the “ivory tower,” Dr. Shepherd hopes to encourage the academic community to be better equipped in explaining its research to the public sphere.

Back at the Institute of Government, I’ve learned that this is our daily challenge in bringing applied service to local governments. A need to synthesize and explain information to those we are serving can include anything from city plans in the form of easy-to-read guides to several in-person presentations that can go months in the making.

Tune in next time as I focus on one of those tasks. We will sit down with Institute of Government faculty member Danny Bivins from the Planning and Environmental Services unit and learn how his team synthesizes downtown strategic planning and assistance across various written and visual forms. We will learn his department’s multiple-step process in making sure that communities know their choices and make decisions in their best interest.

Varad DabkeVarad Dabke is a third-year English and international affairs major from Columbus. He is the public and alumni relations chair for the UGA Undergraduate Mock Trial program and serves as an expert witness in simulated trial competitions. Varad also was selected for a faculty-sponsored research assistantship with the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities. After graduation, Varad hopes to pursue a career in the legal field.