Scicommers as knowledge producers

Reading the latest edition of Raghavendra Gadagkar’s column in The Wire Science, ‘More Fun Than Fun’, about how scientists should become communicators and communicators should be treated as knowledge-producers, I began wondering if the knowledge produced by the latter is in fact not the same knowledge but something entirely new. The idea that communicators simply make the scientists’ Promethean fire more palatable to a wider audience has led, among other things, to a belief widespread among scientists that science communicators are adjacent to science and aren’t part of the enterprise producing ‘scientific knowledge’ itself. And this perceived adjacency often belittles communicators by trivialising the work that they do and hiding the knowledge that only they produce.

Explanatory writing that “enters into the mental world of uninitiated readers and helps them understand complex scientific concepts”, to use Gadagkar’s words, takes copious and focused work. (And if it doesn’t result in papers, citations and h-indices, just as well: no one should become trapped in bibliometrics the way so many scientists have.) In fact, describing the work of communicators in this way dismisses a specific kind of proof of work that is present in the final product – in much the same way scientists’ proofs of work are implicit in new solutions to old problems, development of new technologies, etc. The knowledge that people writing about science for a wider audience produce is, in my view, entirely distinct, even if the nature of the task at hand is explanatory.

In his article, Gadagkar writes:

Science writers should do more than just reporting, more than translating the gibberish of scientists into English or whatever language they may choose to write in. … Science writers are in a much better position to make lateral comparisons, understand the process of science, and detect possible biases and conflicts of interest, something that scientists, being insiders, cannot do very well. So rather than just expect them to clean up our messy prose, we should elevate science writers to the role of knowledge producers.

My point is about knowledge arising from a more limited enterprise – i.e. explanation – but which I think can be generalised to all of journalism as well (and to other expository enterprises). And in making this point, I hope my two-pronged deviation from Gadagkar’s view is clear. First, science journalists should be treated as knowledge producers, but not in the limited confines of the scientific enterprise and certainly not just to expose biases; instead, communicators as knowledge producers exist in a wider arena – that of society, including its messy traditions and politics, itself. Here, knowledge is composed of much more than scientific facts. Second, science journalists are already knowledge producers, even when they’re ‘just’ “translating the gibberish of scientists”.

Specifically, the knowledge that science journalists produce differs from the knowledge that scientists produce in at least two ways: it is accessible and it makes knowledge socially relevant. What scientists find is not what people know. Society broadly synthesises knowledge from information that it weights together with extra-scientific considerations, including biases like “which university is the scientist affiliated with” and concerns like “will the finding affect my quality of life”. Journalists are influential synthesisers who work with or around these and other psychosocial stressors to contextualise scientific findings, and thus science itself. Even when they write drab stories about obscure phenomena, they make an important choice: “this is what the reader gets to read, instead of something else”.

These properties taken together encompass the journalist’s proof of work, which is knowledge accessible to a much larger audience. The scientific enterprise is not designed to produce this particular knowledge. Scientists may find that “leaves use chlorophyll to photosynthesise sunlight”; a skilled communicator will find that more people know this, know why it matters and know how they can put such knowledge to use, thus fostering a more empowered society. And the latter is entirely new knowledge – akin to an emergent object that is greater than the sum of its scientific bits.