When I was a grad student, one of our assignments was to give a presentation to a group of students about genetic counseling. I asked my favorite undergrad biology professor if I could speak to his class and he happily agreed.

The talk went well. The students were engaged, and the professor interjected questions to them occasionally to tie what I was saying into their current curriculum. At one point he said, “And what mode of inheritance is the easiest to spot? Mitochondrial! Right! Because the mother and ALLLLL of her kids will be affected.” I responded with, “Well, yes, unless there’s heteroplasmy…” And then I was met with blank stares and looks of confusion. Every rule in genetics has an exception, and I had mentioned one that they hadn’t been taught yet. 

I stuck around after the class and chatted with my professor. He asked me about some genetic testing his doctor had offered him. He’s a botanist by training, not a geneticist, so he had lots of questions about the testing. As I explained to him the differences in testing options and details about what they might find, I realized how much of what I was explaining wasn’t in the text book he was teaching from. Even advanced genetics text books don’t always dig deeply into all the ways life and DNA can defy our expectations. I’ve had so many real life cases since then that don’t match the text-book picture of how things are “supposed to” work!

Gauging your Audience

When I counsel patients, I have to gauge how much complexity to dive into; how many caveats to explain and rare situations to warn about. If I reveal too much, I risk overwhelming and confusing them; too little, and I risk leaving out information that they should have had a chance to consider. I also have to be honest about the abilities and limitations of the tests we have. I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t see the future, but we do have some technology that helps us see in that direction.

I find myself battling this in my writing as well. I have to fight the urge to use parentheses to give background information within every sentence. Sometimes I’ll start writing on a topic and stop midway through to go write about another topic needed to understand what I had started on!

Conveying Confidence

There’s also a fine line between conveying nuance and sounding like you’re not sure of yourself. Non-scientists may take our reluctance to say “This is 100% true,” as “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I’ve had counseling sessions where I simply can’t answer their questions with a yes or no answer. — “Yes, but…” “No, unless…” “Only if…” “Except when…” “We’re not really sure why…”— Too many of these kinds of responses can be frustrating and make someone feel like it’s impossible to understand anything!

Science-deniers don’t take the time to understand nuance. They spin our lengthy explanations and admissions of incomplete knowledge into evidence that we are not credible. Complicated systems, especially life itself, demonstrate phenomena we haven’t been able to explain yet (if they didn’t, we’d be “done” with science), but that doesn’t make what we do know invalid! It’s hard to relate all the important details in a world that’s increasingly relying on tweets and soundbites to communicate. It’s tough to compete with a clever but inaccurate meme.

When talking about science, we have to stay at our listener’s level. In clinic, we can’t dive too deep too soon, but we also can’t hide details people may need. We need to convey confidence in what we know, but not over-sell what we can deliver. It’s a balancing act that should be practiced and continually adjusted. It’s an important skill that all scientists need to learn if we’re going to be effective in communicating our knowledge to others.

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