Science Communicaton

Humility is a luxury the privileged can afford

I had the privilege of participating in a science communication conference last week (12, December 2018). Some of the speakers beautifully and convincingly articulated the argument for the importance of academics communicating their work with non-academics as well as other academics from different disciplines and how to do it. Alan Alda’s talk, in particular was deep,insightful and thought-provoking.

Alda’s “Communication is not something you add to science; it is the essence of science” captures his key message that communication is an essential part of doing science and not something separate and extra. There is very little dispute regarding the importance of sharing one’s work with the general public as well as scientists, and with academics outside one’s field. However, there is very little guidance as to how one ought to go about it. Alda’s talk during the SCI:COM conference in Dublin provided some of the most insightful advice by far that I have come across.

Alda suggests, talk TO and not AT people. This seemingly obvious but powerful statement is a way of shifting the mindset from “giving a talk” or “delivering a lecture” which treats knowledge as something that can be simply dispersed to communication as two-way shared activity.

Science commination is a reciprocal process that involves both the speaker and the audience. It is vital that the communicator pays attention to the person that they are communicating with. “It is up to you,the communicator, to ensure that the person is following and to bring them onboard.” And this requires understanding your audience. As Alda puts it: “the speaker needs to listen harder than the listener”.

Communication, Alda argues, is not about me figuring out the best message and spraying it at you, it is building a reciprocal dynamic relationship that changes both the speaker and the audience. Effective communication is understanding your audience and knowing how to connect with them. In order to do so, we don’t start with crafting the best message; we start with awareness of the audience.

Good science communication, Alda emphasises, requires reputation, which is intrinsically connected to trust. Speaking from a position of authority is different from speaking as an equal fellow human being. Your audience is more likely to trust you when you speak as a fellow human and this requires humility, which brings me to central point of my blog.

I wholeheartedly agree with Alda’s approach to communication and also think that humility is a virtue that needs to be highly valued.However, whether humility is viewed as a virtue is dependent on societal stereotypes, hence my conflict with it. Humility doesn’t yield trust and reputation for everyone and I speak from a perspective of a black woman in academia. 

In academia, we often have an ideal representation or an image of what an ‘intellectual’ looks like. This is typically a white, middle-class, cis, male. Society’s stereotypes make this group of people automatically perceived as authoritative. Academia’s structure means that people who fit the stereotypically ‘intellectual’ are seen as as unquestionable experts. And for the privileged who fit society’s ‘intellectual’, where coming across as authoritative is the default, humility and speaking to their audience as a fellow human, gains them trust. On the other hand, academics that don’t fit society’s stereotypical ‘intellectual’ often have to work hard to simply prove that they are as capable of their white male counterparts. In an academic environment where looks, gender and race are part of ‘fitting in’ and getting acknowledgements as an intellectual, humility, which is an admirable character for the white male, can be a way of proving that you are not capable, for a black woman. When the default assumption is often you might lack the capacities due to your race or gender, humility might seem like conforming people’s assumptions. Humility, downplaying one’s skills and achievements, for the black woman who already struggles to establish herself as an intellectual, can be a self-imposed punishment which underestimates her intellectual capacity. Humility, then seems, a luxury that the privileged can afford.

Having said that, I must emphasize that the problem is not humility itself but societal stereotypes and rigid academic structures. I still think humility is a character we need to treasure, both in academia and outside. I just hope that we gradually challenge these stereotypes of what an expert intellectual looks like, which will then afford minority’s the luxury for humility and not punish them for it.


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