Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if I had chosen a different job. Had I picked another career, a non-science career, what would life look like right now? Some things wouldn’t be very different at all. I would still have a snack drawer in my work desk, regardless of whether it was in an elementary school or in a press room. My days would still be punctuated by finely calibrated breaks during which I unbutton the top of my pants for a few minutes, a little gift to myself. I would still try to bring baked goods to meetings of all levels of importance (Madame President, the situation in Mosul is dire, but these brownies should help!).
But if I hadn’t gone into science, I imagine the most different thing would be not having to explain what my job actually is every time it comes up. How often does a nurse get asked “what do you mean ‘nurse’”? How regularly does an accountant get quizzical looks after bantering introductions over cocktails? Unless that accountant brings his pet bird to drinks, this never happens!
Most people have jobs folks have heard of, and their jobs entail tasks and ideas to which many people can relate. When I say I do scientific research, there’s usually the initial “Oh, my, well isn’t that interesting” or the “Ooh girl, yaas, get it” response, depending on the person I’m talking to. When I get into explaining that I focus on ecosystems and biogeochemistry, I tend to get the “bio-geo-what-now?” or the (sucks teeth) “well damn!” response, again, depending on my interlocutor. At this point, the discussion of my job is fully over, and someone has already brought up an episode of RadioLab that everyone already heard, or someone has managed to make a tenuous artificial intelligence connection to my mention of science, leading to a swift Westworld segue. Now, I’m mostly fine with this because it’s entertaining to discuss all the podcasts that have come to form our collective consciounesses (millenials, amiright?), and Westworld is bomb, though I’m personally saving it for a future binge afternoon. I’m convinced, though, that if people weren’t confused or overwhelmed, and sometimes even weird and cagey, at the mere mention of science, some solid conversations could take place. And, admittedly, if I could be less ham-handed at explaining what biogeochemistry is, that conversation would last past my first drink.
This got me to thinking about analogies, and how they work really well for everything else. Literature and poetry have had wild monopoly on this for a while (Metaphor! Simile! We get it, jeez!). But advertising also employs analogy to make usually ludicrous claims (chewing certain brands of gum literally never makes you feel like you are snowboarding, believe me). Scientists act like they’ve never heard analogies before, and instead choose to explain what they do in the most literal and unrelatable ways to general audiences. Tucked into this problem is the fact that jargon terms that mean the same thing as normal words feel like caffeine; saying them makes you feel pleasant but then later kind of disoriented (another analogy that lets on too much about my personal life). I imagine that plumbers refer to broken toilets as “broken toilets”, especially when an impatient party is paying for their time. Plumbers are doing it right!
Here are some pointers and resources that have helped me focus on using analogy and keeping it simple when explaining scientific ideas:
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.