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Science, Meet The People

Last month, psychologist Jamil Zaki from Stanford University launched The People's Science (TPS), a forum dedicated to bridging the gap between scientists and the public.

"I've been a big proponent of science communication for a long time," Zaki told me in an email. He was motivated to start the site in part because there's no "middle ground" between doing a lot of science communication (like a science writer) and doing none at all (like most scientists). Zaki explained:

It struck me that a forum like TPS could provide that opportunity, reduce barriers to entry for scientists to engage directly, and also offer the public a place to find out about science straight from the source, so to speak.

The website, which includes a discussion board where scientists can post "pop abstracts" explaining their findings in plain language, provides useful advice for scientists who hope to overcome common pitfalls in describing their work to non-specialists. In a tutorial geared toward scientists, Zaki writes:

Your challenge is to write as though explaining your work to an intelligent, capable relative who is totally naïve to your field and its importance.

That means more than avoiding jargon; it also means providing some context upfront so readers can appreciate why particular findings might matter.

Inspired by the goals of TPS, which resonate with many here at 13.7: Cosmos & Culture, I decided to take the challenge and write my own pop abstract. I started with the abstract from a paper with PhD student Joseph Williams and cognitive psychologist Bob Rehder, titled "The Hazards of Explanation: Overgeneralization in the Face of Exceptions." That was the "before." You can now see the "after" at the TPS forum, in a pop abstract titled "Generating explanations can make you better at learning new patterns ... even when they're not there." It was a useful exercise, and I'm eager for reader comments.

I asked Zaki what he hopes will come of The People's Science:

In an ideal world, I think TPS could provide a platform for scientists to feature their work to a broad audience and describe why they find it exciting and relevant. For non-scientists, I hope that the site can provide an insider's perspective on how scientists think, and a way to go beyond the "punchlines" of a given study and understand the process that went into it. I also think the public should be able to use this to vet other media sources, testing claims made by reporters against scientists' own descriptions. Finally, I'd like the site to be a true forum: instead of each "pop" abstract serving as a static document, I'd like non-scientists and scientists alike to be able to ask questions and engage in discussion about the work posted here. At the highest level, my dream for this site would be to help scientists and non-scientists into more dialogue, which I believe can only be a good thing for our culture at large.

It's too early to tell whether the site will take off but, like Zaki, I see potential. Here's how he frames it:

People have been almost unanimously excited about the site, which is very encouraging. I'm still waiting to see the extent to which people actually post to it, and non-scientists engage. In essence, I'm waiting for the site to pick up momentum.

My pop abstract, posted on Saturday, was the website's fifth. For now you can enjoy additional abstracts exploring the relationship between bodily sensations and emotion, connections between music and movement, attachment and social brain function, and morality and emotions, with hopefully more to come!

Addendum, added on May 7:

Readers might also be interested in a different People's Science, a book by Ruha Benjamin forthcoming from Stanford University Press. Although Zaki's website and Benjamin's book share some common goals, the two projects are independent.

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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