“Best of Health” – June 2016: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t make you understand”

Best of HealthA recent topic of conversation among Breed Health Coordinators in their Facebook Group was how best to communicate scientific concepts and reports to “ordinary breeders and exhibitors”. It’s not the first time and I doubt it will be the last time this topic has had an airing. Getting the answer right is a key element of any Breed Improvement Strategy because, without effective communication, it’s highly unlikely that we will achieve the support and actions needed to make dogs’ lives better.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”, so maybe we should be applying the “granny test” every time we try to communicate important health information. Of course, underpinning this quote is the assumption that your granny doesn’t have a PhD in Canine Genetics, in which case the life of a Breed Health Coordinator would be so much easier!

We aren’t the only community that faces this challenge, so maybe we should try to learn from those who (usually) make science accessible to the masses. The likes of Brian Cox, Alice Roberts and even comedian Dara O’Briain have become recognised TV personalities with their science programmes.

According to the 2014 IPSOS MORI survey of UK public attitudes to science, 72% of respondents said they thought it was important to know about science, compared with 57% in 1988. 90% thought scientists make a valuable contribution to society, but worryingly, a third thought scientists adjust their results to get the answers they want. It would be interesting to see what those responses would be from the dog show/breeder community who have been bombarded with science, genetics and health survey data over the past decade.

Journalists and the press love a good headline; “KC survey reveals apocalyptic drop in purebred dog longevity” hit the streets (or a blog) shortly after the KC published its 2014 Health Survey reports. A recent Vet Times blogger commented on the headline “Majority of pedigree dogs suffer no disease condition, survey shows”. The “majority” was 65%, which the blogger (a vet) rightly pointed out also meant that more than one third of the population did suffer from some disease. Poor communication of important science and data can have significant consequences. It can damage reputations or, at worst, it can lead to harmful decisions and actions. For example, the West African Ebola outbreak required really clear communication of scientific information to large numbers of people with diverse cultural backgrounds so they could take the best possible precautions.

A recent study of factors that caused articles about human vaccination to go viral on social media showed the most shared articles contained:

  • Statistics demonstrating the case being made, plus…
  • A bottom-line message with clear advice for the reader

Both factors had to be present for maximum impact. Articles that were just stories or without statistics, were least likely to be shared. Interestingly, articles that acknowledged both sides of an argument (such as acknowledging occasional adverse vaccine reactions) before coming out with a clear bottom-line message were also seen to have high credibility.

What can we do to improve our chances of people reading and understanding canine science?

I’d probably boil it down to two principles: Plain English and pictures!

According to a 1992 study by the US Department of Education, 90 million English-speaking adults have literacy skills in the lowest two levels. Plain English helps people understand canine science because the writing style is clear, concise and free from jargon. There are plenty of plain-English guidelines and techniques, such as using short sentences and the active voice. This is not the place to spell them out; they are widely available online. We also need to think about other aspects, such as making the message matter to the reader, explaining concepts using information they already know and deciding what details to leave out.

People tend to learn best when they are interested in something and when they can directly relate it to themselves. If we can answer the “what’s in it for them?” question, they are more likely to read and understand. So, increased genetic diversity means they are more likely to have bigger litters and fewer puppy deaths. A lower Coefficient of Inbreeding means they are less likely to find inherited diseases cropping up in their puppies.

When I first learnt to be a trainer, I was taught that it helps to start with what is familiar and build new concepts from the known to the unknown. For example, most people know how uncomfortable it is to get an eyelash rubbing on their eye, so it’s an easy analogy to make when explaining the health impact of Entropion or Distichiasis. Some dogs have to live with these but they aren’t as quickly sorted as getting that eyelash out of your own eye. It might be simplistic, but it gets the point across.

Another danger when communicating scientific information is the tendency to include every last detail. Those who understand, or created the information, may think every detail is important. However, some things just aren’t as important when you’re trying to explain something that is new to the audience. This is a classic dilemma when trying to explain statistical significance to a lay audience. It’s probably perfectly adequate, for that audience, to say a result is statistically significant, but not important to quote Confidence Levels or p-values. However, it is important to ensure a lay audience understands that Correlation does not imply Causation. The well-publicised study of neutering in Golden Retrievers showed neutered dogs had double the occurrence of HD compared to entire dogs. The paper, rightly, did not say “Neutering causes HD”. Knowing what to leave out, is important. The aim is to help someone understand a difficult subject.

Plain English is not “dumbing-down”. It is about clear and effective communication, nothing less.

A picture paints a thousand words.

One of the ways to grab an audience’s attention is to use pictures and, increasingly, infographics are being used to present scientific data. Instead of telling your story using lots of words, you present your message in a more visual way, using eye-catching design elements. Many people love facts and figures, so if you can present them in a compelling way, you can really make an impact. The brain processes visuals faster than text; it’s easier to understand the effect of epilepsy by looking at a short video than by reading about it. Infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than a text article, according to one marketing study.

By an odd coincidence, most of my Best of Health articles contain about 1000 words. Maybe I should save you all the effort of reading them and simply send the Editor a picture each month!

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