Speaking down versus eye to eye

Recently, in response to an article that we wrote about him, a respected scientist at the RUG suggested that the UK had ‘spoken down’ to our readers about his research. He felt that we included irrelevant details and, as I understood his comments, that we had oversimplified his research.

He didn’t say it in so many words, but the main take away was: you guys are being childish. The UK writes like a pre-schooler.

In a certain respect, that’s an understandable reaction. We take months – if not years – of painstaking research and boil it down to a mere 800 words, and on top of that, we also want to know more about their personal motivation. What inspires them? What moves them?

And – Heaven forbid – after all of that, the journalist still insists on describing your workspace. Like that even matters

Diverse audience

Actually, it does matter. Because a researcher’s typical audience is very different from the UK’s audience. The former group is well-versed in the topic and needs little to no explanation in order to understand what is being covered. But that is not the case for the UK’s audience. The sciences are diverse, but the full range of people who populate the university is even more diverse.

The UK aims to bring the fascinating world of research at the RUG into the spotlight in a manner that is comprehensible for a broader audience. Oversimplifying is virtually unavoidable, but that isn’t a bad thing. It is, in fact, a necessity. That is what we call – perhaps unsurprisingly – journalistic science.

Human scale

But then why do we also insist on writing about what personally drives or fascinates a researcher? And why on earth do we want to know what their workspace looks like?

Journalists and scientists share one important similarity: they both convey information. But the manner in which they do it differs: researchers focus on the observations, theories, experiments, data and calculations, and they write them up in epic research reports. Journalists are story tellers who give the researcher, and their research, a face. The human scale of this approach makes the researcher and their discipline more interesting.

Consider Proxima b, the planet that was recently discovered. There are millions of planets, and many of them are, scientifically-speaking, far more interesting than this particular rock. But why does Proxima b grab the imagination so? Because it looks like earth. Because it could possibly support life. It’s the human scale that makes the science feel far closer than the 4.2 million light years which separate the planet from us here on earth.

In short, if we simplify and get ‘into the head’ of the researcher, we aren’t ‘talking down’ to anyone. We are seeing them eye-to-eye.

Rob Siebelink, interim editor-in-chief


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