Why is the suicide rate climbing in the United States even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety? How can people who frequently attend church be twice as likely to believe in ghosts? What is it that makes a large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to resort to violence in order to prevent a person from speaking?
Clay Routledge, a behavioral scientist, can explain. Though you may not have paid attention to his byline, you might be familiar with his pieces under the science and society page of The New York Times, “Gray Matter.”
Routledge has a knack for demystifying complex topics as deftly to his fellow scientists as he does to the farmer or mechanic in Idaho with no scientific training. That matters, said Northeastern psychology professor David DeSteno, because in order to help create an informed and enlightened society, scientists and scholars must be adept at sharing the knowledge they generate through their research. Having their jargon-filled studies sit in academic journals collecting dust benefits no one, he said.
“There’s an information-hungry public out there and giving them access to the knowledge that universities generate is important,” DeSteno said.
DeSteno and fellow Northeastern psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett recently received three grants from the John Templeton Foundation for a total of nearly $600,000, including two grants to continue offering workshops that help scientists such as Routledge communicate complex information to laypeople.
Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have applied to attend the first three workshops, and a dozen have been selected to participate in each one. According to DeSteno, several of their workshop attendees have written articles for major news outlets such as the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. Now they are planning a fourth workshop this fall in Boston.
DeSteno and Barrett received a third grant that will enable them to create online materials for anybody who needs help writing for mainstream audiences. The professors said they are doing this work pro bono, not only because they believe it helps society, but also because it keeps agencies that fund research enterprises informed about the work scientists are doing.
Barrett and DeSteno said they became interested in this endeavor years ago when they started sharing their own studies with non-scientists. Now they are frequent contributors to the Times, among other publications, and want to make it easier for their colleagues to translate their research for the public.
“In psychology, there’s a growing interest in sharing scientific knowledge with the public. And, the timing could not be better,” said Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology. “At this particular moment in time it’s very hard to be a full participant in civic life without having a working knowledge of science. In order to make your vote count you have to know something about how science works and about findings related to climate change or depression or how to invest your money.”