Guest Blogger: William Rhoads, PhD Candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech.
In every field – scientific or not – there is a set of jargon that facilitates communication between experts while at the same time alienates and marginalizes everyone else. We really don’t spend enough time thinking through how to communicate our ideas and results to a public that just doesn’t speak the same language as we do.
I was recently at a workshop about “communicating science” to the public and media where I was asked what message I would relay about my field if I could only pick one. I still don’t have a real, concrete answer to that question, but I said I would want to describe and demystify the language of my field. I chose one term that I would want people to better understand: Water quality.
Water quality is a term that many fields use very differently. Generally, it describes the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water. But if you ask a consumer, drinking water utility manager, wastewater utility manager, industrial systems operator, water resources engineer, and nanotechnology scientist what good quality water is, you might get 10 different answers (and yes, you hypothetically only asked 6 people). If any of them is smart, they would reply, “It depends.” And it really does…
The important part about this concept is thinking about what aspects of water quality would be critical for the public to understand through the lens of a specific field. For my field – drinking water – it’s important for the consumer to know their water won’t make them sick, will taste good, will be consistent in how is tastes and looks, and will be there when they throw the handle of their bath tub or lawn spigot. For 99% of the time, the consumer doesn’t really need to know much about their water.
But right after a storm, or a main break, or local construction that disturbs pipes, when the water is just a little different from what their used to, they need and want to know a whole lot more: why is the water brown? Why does is smell? What can I do? Is it safe to drink? Bathe in? Water my lawn with?
In these scenarios, especially when the public reaches out to the engineer or scientist for information, it is important that the engineer can clearly articulate a problem accurately to a consumer. With no formal training in how to do this, but with ample experience talking with teachers, co-workers, etc. why would we expect the engineer to do anything but communicate in the way he/she knows how? This type of ad hoc response, I believe, feeds into the sometimes negative stereotypes that the public has about us, and that we have about the public.
What are common misconceptions in your field? What can you do to help overcome them?
William Rhoads is a PhD student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech working with Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Amy Pruden. His research focuses on various aspects of opportunistic pathogens in drinking water and implications of green buildings on public health. William is currently the president of a joint American Water Works Association and Water Environment Federation graduate student group and is the recipient of the Via Doctoral Fellowship.
Image sources: Frankenstein – imdb.com and Public – democraticunderground.com