By Logan Watts
I have attempted on many occasions throughout my life to learn a new language. After taking several years of Spanish in high school because it was required, I have since dabbled with learning German, French, Greek, Japanese, and more Spanish. The resources available for learning new languages have never been greater, and yet even now I find the learning curve to be incredibly steep—requiring lots of patience, persistence, and practice.
When earning my undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, I was often struck by how the process of becoming an expert in my area was similar to learning a new language. My friends and family members used to ask, “What’s your dissertation about?” I learned after a while to dread this question. I dreaded it not because of a lack of knowledge or interest in my subject matter, but because of the difficulty of communicating the complexity of my subject to someone who didn’t understand my specialized language. Answering the question required striking a delicate balance between simplicity and complexity, and if I failed (which happened often!), I would see the eyes of the person who asked look away as I lost their attention.
Much of my time these days is spent trying to find ways to help students acquire a working knowledge of the language of psychology. My other major responsibility is disseminating research knowledge. In producing research, I am rewarded for publishing peer-reviewed journal articles—articles that 99.9% of people will never read. As long as my work makes it into these specialized outlets enough times, I will have succeeded as an academic.
In other words, very little emphasis in psychology, or science more generally for that matter, is placed on communicating findings to nontechnical audiences—that is, the 99.9%. There are many reasons why the results of scientific studies go uncommunicated to the general public. For one, scientific findings, and the methods used to uncover them, are oftentimes highly complex. This presents a very real language barrier. Each field has its own specialized language, sometimes making it difficult for people even within related subfields to communicate. Given the complexity of learning this new, complex language, it’s not surprising that it takes 6 to 8 years on average to earn a PhD.
Another reason is that people outside one’s field don’t know how to interpret the findings of a given study within the context of the history of knowledge on that subject. Whereas experts know that they shouldn’t place too great a weight on the findings of any single study, novices may be more likely to change their views—views which inform real-world decisions—based on far less evidence. Thus, communicating research to the public requires delicately framing one’s findings in the context of the study’s limitations and the history of knowledge on the subject.
In light of these challenges, I would still argue that there is value, potentially great value, in communicating research findings to the 99.9%. Every scientist, whether in fields labeled “hard” or “soft”, has a social responsibility to share their research as broadly as possible. It is part of the unwritten contract that one signs when becoming a scientist, particularly scientists whose work is ultimately funded by the public.
The media has attempted to step in and fill the knowledge transfer gap by communicating the findings of scientific studies to the general public. But scientists oftentimes feel their work is misrepresented in popular news outlets. Drawing simple conclusions that are likely to garner the most clicks and views is often prioritized over drawing more mature and valid conclusions. Thus, the scientists who do the work are often the best equipped to communicate their results, even if overcoming the language barriers are challenging and the process goes largely unrewarded.
Along these lines, we have attempted to break away from our specialized language in the field of workplace psychology and more specifically, the why, what, and how of improving ethics in organizations, when describing some of our own published research in former blog posts. We are committed to continuing these efforts, and we hope you will join us on our journey to share what we have learned, and have yet to learn, about ethics in the workplace.
If you are interested in other websites that report the results of recent studies related to workplace psychology to non-technical audiences, you may want to check out the list on Dr. Richard Landers’ blog, NeoAcademic.
The Ethics Advantage Team