Some years ago, I was having a hair cut and chatting to the hairdresser (as you do), when she asked me what I did for a living. I explained I was studying for a PhD in glaciology. Bearing in mind I hadn’t the least idea what PhD actually was until I became a student myself, I then said that I basically studied how glaciers moved (close enough). Her next question completely stumped me.
‘What’s a glacier?’
I had taken for granted that she would know what a glacier is but as I later realised, there is no reason that she would or should. She had never visited the alps or gone skiing or hiking in the mountains (the most obvious way to come into contact with glaciers) and she was certainly not a budding geography student.
Glaciers never featured in my school curriculum, so why would they have done in hers? I had immediately fallen over one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where you assume others have an equivalent understanding of the same things you do. The other, more well known aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is illusory superiority, where individuals commonly rate their intelligence, skills etc as above average.
I still find it difficult to know what kind of level to aim for when discussing my work. I truly believe everyone should be able to understand the principles and the concepts behind what I do and if it sounds too complex to understand then I am not communicating it well enough. At the same time I have to recognise that a 4 year degree, a 1 year masters and a 3 and a half year PhD plus 4 years of post-doc work have inevitably shaped my thinking and the ‘stuff what I know’; my (non-technical) audience does not have that advantage.
My greatest fear is that I am patronising or boring the people I am talking to and repeating tired or obvious metaphors. The interest with which people usually react when I explain what I do for a living suggests that there is a great latent interest in climate and glaciers but I often then feel hamstrung about going further than a few superficial comments.
Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of science communication is a major reason I started this blog, so I am posting this shortish piece now by way of an explanation and an apology in advance for when I get it wrong.
Following the dictum that the world needs a new blog like I need a chocolate biscuit I would like to discuss some things that are not commonly discussed elsewhere on the web, and in particular my own work in glaciology.
As for the answer I finally gave to the inquisitive hairdresser? Well a glacier is like a very slow moving frozen river. Snow falls at the top is pressed down by more snow falling on top and becomes ice, this very very slowly starts to flow downhill like very slow moving water until it gets to the end of the glacier where it melts.
These days of course, with web browsers on most phones, the answer is obvious, wikipedia it…