Unconference Model continues for SCIENCE TALK '20
Science Talk wants to remain responsive to the needs and interests of our conference attendees. So, once again, we will use a modified unconference model for SCIENCE TALK '20.
Our conference-unconference hybrid is similar to a traditional conference in that the Programming Committee will continue to organize the overall conference schedule, coordinate details, and invite Keynote speakers and panelists. However, like an unconference, the specific programming (the who and the what) is initially up to the people who will come to the conference. This puts the attendee at the center of the conference - you decide what sessions best serve your needs, and together we will create a dynamic program.
Here’s how it will work:
Who is involved:
We are making this change in the hopes that by opening up the program to proposals from the community new ideas (the best ideas) and people will surface, and keep the conference fresh and exciting to as many as possible. We hope this allows our community to develop and grow in a vibrant and inclusive way that benefits the entire science communications field.
There will be questions. As they come in, we will answer them as best we can and create an FAQ as a resource to everyone.
One of under-appreciated joys of being a denizen of a STEM field: you get to apply your knowledge to investigate real-world answers to questions as fantastical as you can dream up.
Ever wanted to know what Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory would cost if you had to power it, pay your Oompa Loompas, and install a flying glass elevators? You probably haven't. But the point is that, with a little curiosity, you can figure it out.
From the infographic creator, Jeremy Wright of Advanced Technology Services: The motivation to create this infographic was based on the 48 year anniversary of the film being made (1971). As a team, we brainstormed creative infographic ideas that related to manufacturing, STEM and education, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was the clear winner. We wanted to create a fun, engaging take on manufacturing in that movie vs real life today that would peak students interest and provide a little factual knowledge to share with their family and friends. Today, the Wonka plant can still be a helpful illustration of the true cost of the industry.
Courtesy of Advanced Technology Services
About the author: Jeremy Wright is the Director of Product Management at Advanced Technology Services and is a recognized expert in the field of industrial machinery lubrication management and reliability. He is a proven technical educator and consultant – leading the development of consulting programs and methodologies for many of the world’s top manufacturing sites. He is also active in numerous professional organizations, including standards organizations, with the purpose of driving reliability to the forefront of many industries.
Big takeaways from the annual science communication conference for scientists, journalists, multimedia creators and more — in pictures.
Written by Bruce Kirchoff, Department of Biology, UNCG. Illustrations by Jon Wagner, East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Portland, OR. Edited by Simon Bakke.
Science Talk (#SciTalk19) is an annual two-day conference that brings together scientists and science communication professionals to improve scientific communication. I was there to talk about the work the University of North Carolina at Greensboro University Speaking Center is doing to improve scientific communication, and to promote this type of work at other universities. In the afternoon of the second day I met Jon Wagner, who was documenting the conference with drawings and agreed to co-author this review, as the illustrator.
Science Talk began with Joe Palca, a science correspondent for NPR who introduced an important theme for the conference: building relationships. “We have to build relationships so that when we talk to people, they will listen to us.”
As science writer and biologist Maryam Zaringhalam explained, scientists often operate from what the science communication field calls the “knowledge deficit model.” For instance, scientists often assume that people who do not believe in global warming just don’t have enough information, but surveys of climate change skeptics tell us otherwise. Climate change deniers often have just as much factual knowledge as those who accept the human origins of global warming. The difference only appears when you ask them if they accept human-caused climate change. Their position is based on their identity, not their knowledge. It is as if you asked them “Are you a good conservative?” Denying climate change has become a part of their conservative identity.
This is why Joe Palca, and many others, emphasize relationships, not facts, as the force necessary to change opinions. Competence and warmth are the two most important factors in science communication.
(1) have a clear purpose you want to address, (2) find an online vehicle that is suited to your purpose, (3) expand to other vehicles slowly, (4) create community guidelines to make sure the members feel safe, (5) be sure that you want to be a long-term member of the community as you will be spending a lot of time there.
Later, Sarah Myhre spoke passionately about her experience as a female climate scientist and the need to speak out in the face of the forces that seek to silence our voices.
The poster session at the end of the day provided an opportunity to promote the work we do at the University Speaking Center in teaching good science communication. For the past two years Speaking Center faculty and I have offered scientific communication training in a variety of formats. At Science Talk, I advocated for a model of collaborative work between graduate schools, communication centers, and science faculty in order to train the next generation of scientists.
The second day began with break-out workshops. I met Jon, who was illustrating the conference with these fantastic drawings, at the workshop run by Compass. Compass is an organization that helps scientists learn to communicate to the public and decision makers. Their workshop led us through an exercise to articulate our goals as leaders in science communication.
I took this opportunity to formalize my goal of improving scientific communication by graduate students so that they will pass these skills on to their own students in the future. I also identified a number of potential champions of this approach, and formulated three immediate goals, which I am currently carrying out.
A series of short talks followed the coffee break: great science books, storytelling for science in Puerto Rico, Space in your Face (Google it), improving communication between doctors and patients, and the excellent work of the National Center for Science Education. Throughout the presentations, we heard again and again that the best way to communicate science is to be yourself and relate honestly to your audience. Data does not convince, but personal connections can.
The conference ended with a keynote presentation by YouTube’s Physics Girl, Dianna Cowern. Dianna gave an engaging, enthusiastic presentation punctuated by clips from some of her videos. Her message was that to create interest in science you need curiosity, novelty and excitement. Although her platform is YouTube, these principles apply to any type of science communication.
It encouraged me to know that one of her two most important influences was her high school science teacher, who was at Science Talk to see her presentation. Her other influence was our own Kiki Sanford, who has produced and hosted the podcast This Week in Science since 1999. We should never underestimate the difference we can make in peoples’ lives.
I will end with some goals for the future, as outlined by Jennifer Cutraro of the Kavli Foundation: As science communicators we need to focus on the needs of the communities we serve, not just ourselves; we need to help scientists see the value of scientific communication; and we need to work to make the Sci Comm community as diverse and inclusive as possible. The Science Talk community is taking important steps in all of these areas.
The dates for Science Talk 2020 have been set for March 26 – 27 in Portland, OR. Maybe I will see you there!
By Bernardo Traversari and Alexandra Gonzalez-Van Wart
Edited by Simon Bakke
Traducción al español aquí
I was always interested in science, but I did not know that being a scientist was a [possible career] I could pursue. I only knew medicine as a scientific career, so when my father was diagnosed with depression, I decided I wanted to study the way the brain works. Since my father was treated by a psychiatrist, I initially went to college hoping to go into psychiatry. I met my first scientist in my freshman year biology class; this professor became a mentor to me. She insisted I participate in a summer research program, and after that program a door opened to a new world.
How did you decide to move from research to science communication?
It was pretty accidental! I didn’t know that science communication was a professional field in the sciences. When I returned to Puerto Rico, I had an urge to use my knowledge and resources to help advance science at home. In 2006, I met Daniel Colón-Ramos, the founder of Ciencia Puerto Rico (Science Puerto Rico). Daniel told me that he had created a webpage - and remember that this is still when things like Facebook hadn’t taken off yet - where people interested in science in Puerto Rico could connect. The idea of connecting scientific concepts with Puerto Rican identity and culture was very exciting to me, and I realized that this is something I wanted to do. I began working with “El Nuevo Día” (The New Day), the biggest newspaper in Puerto Rico, to let scientists publish scientific articles in the paper in an accessible and context-relevant manner. Eventually I became more involved with the organization, and now I head most of its projects on science communication, education, and outreach.
First, science communication: we collaborate using newspaper articles, podcasts, videos, etc. Second, education in schools: we have focused on how to teach science in Puerto Rico at the middle school level. This is a crucial point where many students lose interest in science and math or start failing in these subjects. Our star project is “Ciencia al Servicio de Puerto Rico” (Science at the Service of Puerto Rico). The project joins local middle school teachers with professional scientists to train them on teaching strategies using project-based learning. Lastly, we focus on training young scientists in more than just research. Ciencia Puerto Rico really tries to connect science with Puerto Rican community and culture. Science provides a way to develop critical thinking and problem solving, and as such has something for everyone.
What is the importance of cultural diversity in the academic world, mainly in countries like the United States? How can we improve, and what are the challenges?
I think the conversation about diversity has lost its meaning. It should be more about equity than diversity. Everyone should have the ability to expand on their knowledge. There are minority groups that have historically been underrepresented, abused by, and oppressed by science. If the goal is to benefit all and obtain excellence, then we need people with different points of view, ideas, and cultural experiences. Cultural experiences are important to how we see the world. I grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico and that shapes how I experience the world. If we all think the same, ideas do not progress as much.
Increasing the numbers of minority students or researchers does not make the system more diverse. It is not a matter of numbers, it is a matter of how we change the system to be more inclusive and equal. I am optimistic because I see the results in my work.
Should the future of Hispanic scientists concentrate on diversifying academia in countries like the United States, or should efforts be focused on pushing for more opportunities in Latin America? Should we invest our energy in our own countries or in others?
I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. If you can and want to do both, you should. We should do what we can with the resources we have available to us. Science has a fundamental role in keeping society healthy, and countries in Latin America should invest in science. Not only monetarily, but by giving science a place in our culture. When people think of Puerto Rico they think of the music and food, but no one thinks of science - no one thinks of science when they think of culture. There needs to be a cultural investment. My efforts focus on both ends, trying to do what I can so that my institution in the United States can be more inclusive, but also using my position to contribute to Puerto Rican culture.
Do you have a message for young scientists interested in entering the field of science communication? How can we learn from you to be better scientists and communicators?
I would rather learn from you! I think I learn more from my students than they do from me. I try to think about where I can make unique contributions. What is my advantage, where can I add value? Sometimes, people might minimize our experiences and the value of our identity. I think it is important to embrace that and use it to our advantage. Don’t fear owning your identity, owning your experiences, and stepping into the power of who you are.
Ciencia, Cultura e Identidad: una entrevista con la Dra. Mónica Feliú-Mójer
Recientemente tuve la oportunidad de entrevistar a la Dra. Feliú-Mójer, neurobióloga y comunicadora en las ciencias. Hablamos sobre cómo empoderarse de la identidad de uno es la clave para hacer de la ciencia algo inclusivo y accesible para todos. Para la Dra. Feliú-Mójer, conectar a la ciencia con la comunidad y la cultura abre todo tipo de puertas.
Quería comenzar con un poco de su historia personal. ¿Cómo decidió perseguir una carrera en las ciencias?
Yo nací y fui criada en un área rural de Puerto Rico. Eso significa que mi campo de juego era la naturaleza; teníamos muchos animales y mucho verde a mi alrededor. Siempre me interesó la ciencia, pero no sabía que ser científica era una posibilidad - solo conocía la medicina como una carrera científica. Cuando le diagnosticaron a mi padre con depresión, me interese mucho en el cerebro. Como a mi padre le trataba un psiquiatra, fui a la universidad a estudiar medicina con la idea de ser psiquiatra. La primera científica que conocí fue mi profesora de biología de primer año; ella se convirtió en una mentora. Ella me insistió participar en un programa de investigación durante el verano, y este programa me abrió un mundo entero.
¿Como hizo el cambio a esta carrera de comunicación en las ciencias?
¡Fue bastante accidental! Yo no sabía que existía un campo profesional de comunicación en las ciencias. Cuando regresaba a Puerto Rico, tenía un anhelo de utilizar mi conocimiento y recursos para ayudar el avance de la ciencia en el país. Como por coincidencia en el 2006 conocí a Daniel Colón-Ramos, el fundador de “Ciencia Puerto Rico.” El me conto que tenía una página web - y recuerda que en este tiempo cosas como Facebook no eran lo que son hoy - en donde gente interesada en la ciencia en Puerto Rico se podían conectar. Esta idea de conectar conceptos científicos con la identidad y la cultura puertorriqueña me emocionó mucho, y me di cuenta que esto era algo que quería hacer. Empecé a trabajar con “El Nuevo Dia,” el diario más circulado en Puerto Rico, creando un enlace para que científicos pudieran publicar sus hallazgos en el diario de manera accesible y relevante para la comunidad. Eventualmente me involucre más con la organización y hoy en día encabezo la mayoría de sus proyectos de comunicación y educación científica.
¿Cómo ha crecido Ciencia Puerto Rico? ¿Como hace la organización para empoderar a científicos Hispanoamericanos a través de su cultura?
Al comienzo, Ciencia Puerto Rico era un grupo de voluntarios y estudiantes. Expandimos una vez que la comunidad empezó a expresar sus necesidades; intentamos tomar el pulso de las necesidades de la comunidad científica y actuar ante ello. Aunque la comunidad es bastante diversa, las conexiones locales son muy fuertes. De manera resumida, Ciencia Puerto Rico se enfoca en tres áreas principales. Primero, la comunicación de la ciencia: colaboramos con periódicos, podcasts, etc. para mejorar el acceso a información científica. Segundo, la educación a nivel escolar: nos enfocamos en cómo se enseña la ciencia en Puerto Rico en la secundaria. Este es un punto crucial en donde los niños empiezan a fracasar en las matemáticas y ciencias experimentales, y como resultado pueden perder interés en ellas. Nuestro proyecto estrella es “Ciencia al Servicio de Puerto Rico.” El proyecto une a maestros de escuela intermedia con científicos profesionales para capacitarse en estrategias de aprendizaje basada en proyectos. Por último, nos enfocamos en capacitar a científicos jóvenes más allá de la investigación. Ciencia Puerto Rico trata de conectar a la ciencia con la comunidad y cultura puertorriqueña. La ciencia provee una manera de desarrollar pensamiento crítico y de resolver problemas, y por ello es algo útil para todos.
¿Cuál es la importancia de diversidad cultural en el mundo académico, especialmente en países como los EE. UU.? ¿Cómo podemos mejorar en esta área, y cuáles son los problemas asociados a obtener un mayor nivel de diversidad?
Creo que la conversación acerca de la diversidad ha perdido un poco el significado. El enfoque debería de ser en la equidad. Todo el mundo [tiene] la capacidad de aportar al conocimiento. Hay grupos de minorías que históricamente han sido subrepresentados, abusados, y oprimidos por la ciencia. Si el propósito de la ciencia es beneficiar a todos y alcanzar la excelencia, es importante tener representación de personas con distintos puntos de vista, ideas, y experiencias culturales. Las experiencias culturales tienen un valor en como percibimos al mundo. Si todos piensan lo mismo, las ideas no progresan.
¿Es optimista acerca de un posible cambio en cuanto a la diversidad en el mundo académico, o necesitamos hacer un mayor esfuerzo para que este cambio suceda?
Ha habido unos cambios positivos, pero siempre se puede hacer más. No es solamente responsabilidad de las minorías y a los grupos oprimidos el terminar con su opresión. Esto es una responsabilidad de todos. Las personas que no son minorías tienen que interesarse y darse cuenta de que están en la posición de poder hacer un cambio. El que aumentes el número de minorías no le hace más diverso al sistema. No es cuestión de números, es cuestión de cómo cambiamos al sistema para ser más inclusivo y equitativo.
¿Cree que futuros científicos hispanoamericanos deberían enfocarse en incrementar la diversidad académica en países como los EE. UU.? ¿O deberíamos concentrar nuestras energías en crear más oportunidades de investigación en nuestros propios países?
Pienso que ambas metas no son mutuamente exclusivas. Si puedes y quieres hacer ambas cosas, entonces hazlas. Tienes que hacer lo que puedas con los recursos que tienes a tu disposición. La ciencia tiene un rol fundamental en mantener saludable a la sociedad. Los países Latinoamericanos deberían de invertir en las ciencias no solo monetariamente, pero dándole a la ciencia un lugar en nuestras culturas. Nadie piensa en la ciencia cuando piensan en la cultura puertorriqueña; piensan más que nada en la música y comida. Hay que hacer una inversión cultural. Mis esfuerzos se han enfocado en ambos países; trato de hacer lo que yo pueda para que mi institución en los EE. UU. sea más inclusiva, pero también uso mi posición para aportar a la cultura puertorriqueña.
¿Tiene algún mensaje para científicos jóvenes entrando al campo de comunicación científica? ¿Cómo podemos aprender de usted a ser mejores científicos y comunicadores?
¡Yo prefiero aprender de ustedes! Yo siento aprendo más de mis estudiantes que ellos de mí. Trata de identificar cuáles son tus contribuciones únicas a la sociedad; ¿dónde puedes añadir valor a la misma? A veces minimizamos la importancia de nuestras experiencias y nuestra identidad. Sé orgulloso de estas, y reconoce el poder de quién eres tú.
Dr. Feliú-Mójer obtained her PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard University in 2013. Besides being the Director of Communications & Science Outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico, she is also the Associate Director of Diversity & Communication Training for iBiology and Director of Outreach for the Yale Ciencia Academy (Yale Science Academy). She has been featured extensively on a variety of science shows and podcasts, and has given talks on the importance of cultural relevance in science communication at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos, Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) 2016 National Conference and the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting. More information on her work, visit her personal webpage at https://www.monicafeliu.me/.
By Chelsie Boodoo (@SciWithChelsie)
Edited by Simon Bakke
Dr. Joe Palca was the perfect person to introduce me to science communication. Joe did not realize what science communication was until long into his career. In 1982, Joe was completing his dissertation at the University of California Santa Cruz on sleep psychology when he saw an advertisement for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. This fellowship was focused on training scientists to strengthen their connection with journalists. Not enthralled with his research, he knew he did not want to stay in academia and wanted to try something new. Joe decided to give the fellowship a try; it was an opportunity to explore something new that valued his degree without constraining him to a laboratory.
“The part of grad school I really liked was teaching and working with students,” Joe said. “[The fellowship] was everything grad school was not — it was different every day.”
He was suggested by an AAAS Mass Media Fellow to take a writing test to be a vacation relief writer for the ABC station on San Francisco KGO. He took the test on Thursday, and on Friday he received a call asking him to start Monday. He assured me that anyone could be a science communicator, that all they had to was give it a try.
“Just take a swing. I don’t know if I wrote prize-winning stuff that first week, but I did OK, and that led to another week,” Joe said. I believe this is true; some people are afraid to take the first step towards a career in science communication, but the outcomes are rewarding.
Within a few years, he achieved his goal of becoming a television science communicator. Unfortunately, he developed a distaste for local news.
"Local news is very much dominated by sports and weather and gore. I didn’t really care for that,” Joe said.
Again, he switched careers. He was offered a job with Nature through his connections from when he was a Mass Media Fellow, and switched again to working at Science for a few years. He made the final career change to National Public Radio (NPR), where he has worked for the past 26 years. I was surprised he left reputable companies like Nature and Science, but pleased when he said, “I think it’s a good thing I left. I found myself happier with a news organization that reached the public, not just the science, so that was very satisfying.”
After reading, watching and listening to a few of his pieces on NPR (occasionally accompanied by the puppet in the photo), I noticed a majority of them were based on Astronomy, NASA and other topics. I was intrigued because he earned his Ph.D. in Sleep Psychology. So I asked: what's it like writing in a field without any previous expertise and how do you overcome the obstacle of both learning and communicating it?
He explained he believes writing in a field that is not in your subject of expertise is actually easier, because you’re less constrained to know all the details. Though some think only scientists can become effective communicators, Joe does not.
What Joe said resonated with me. I later pondered the countless times I lost sight of what I was saying because I was too caught up in the details. His next example made it even clearer for me: sometimes, you need to ask the obvious.
“If you're a sleep researcher and you ask what Stage Four sleep is, they’re going to ask, ‘what kind of sleep researcher are you?’ [It’s] awkward if you [already] know the answer, but you still have to ask bc it’s not your story — it’s their story.”
I never thought about it like that.
He tells starting science journalists that it is easier to write about things you do not know, since you are not as constrained by the things you needed to leave out to get your story across.
Many scientists, like myself, believe that science communication can be daunting. However, after speaking to Joe, I understand now that the hardest step is the first. Joe’s ambition to become a Mass Media fellow provided many opportunities for him. I did not realize until speaking to Joe that it is easier for some people to write about something outside of their expertise. Scientists need to be open to the idea of delving into fields that are not their own. By having confidence, passion, and ambition, they can become effective science communicators and help shape the future.
By Catherine Hudson
Edited by Simon Bakke
The Alda Center aims to give scientists the skills necessary to communicate their research and conclusions clearly, leading to improved understanding of their research by those who are not directly involved. The Alda Center uses The Alda Method®, a combination of improvisational activities aimed at creating an emotional response to clear the way for increased empathy and communication.
As someone who previously worked as both an undergraduate and graduate researcher and who is now interested in science communication and outreach, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to interview Lindenfeld. I enjoyed hearing her unique perspective as we discussed her career path, communication research, and her new job as the Interim Dean.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in communication research?
A. Largely because I had an interest in food cultural studies and environmental science, I took a deep interest in understanding how communication research could support better collaborative processes in solving environmental issues and how it could support inter- and transdisciplinary team collaboration. I found my way to working with a lot of STEM professionals, and that’s where my interest in science communication — which is really an interest in STEM communication — first started. I realized that we needed better communication to help link our research with societal action.
Starting with my interest in food cultural studies, I discovered that if you study food long enough, you find your research will lead you to the environment and the earth. And if you study the environment and the earth long enough, you find your way to people. The problems that exist with the planet are mostly ones that we’ve created and we have to engage people to address those problems. That’s how I progressed from food to the environment to science, people, and communication research.
Although the data is still being collected, we’ve received positive feedback from scientists about the benefits of the training that include greater confidence and an increased enthusiasm for scientific outreach. We’ve also done a study that explores the interest of scientists in bringing public engagement to their research. It asks scientists what they both want and need in order to better engage the public. I’m really proud and excited about this study and the new data should be coming out soon! I’m also interested to know how improved science communication can improve researcher/stakeholder collaborations.
Q. Has there been anything that has surprised you since you started work at the Alda Center?
A. One thing that has been really surprising to me is how much Alan Alda’s name not only opens doors, but also raises suspicion. Researchers question if there is credibility to the research that takes place at the Alda Center or if we are just riding on a celebrity’s name.
I’ve also been surprised by how new the world of science communication training research is. Science communication itself is not a new topic, but studying science communication is still a young field. More broadly, I would really like to see a collaborative effort continue to evolve that supports robust workforce development both inside and outside academia where we can collectively be learning from each other across different approaches to science communication training and research.
Q. What about communication research makes you love it?
A. I love being able to do work that actually matters! I love that we work in iterative cycles of research and implementation and that we’re open to learning, not just from our own mistakes, but also from the data. I love being able to say, “Here’s how we can do this better,” and then being able to do it!
I also enjoy collaborating and the interdisciplinary team dynamic that we have that exhibits a constant learning process where people can question each other in responsible and civil ways. I work in a place where people can offer insight, feedback, and criticism without feeling like they have to hold back because they might criticize someone. There’s really a focus on moving the work forward, and I love that we have that positive dynamic.
Q. Could you tell me more about your new position as the Interim Dean at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism?
A. At the School of Journalism where I am now interim dean, I think there is a huge opportunity to help shape what the future of the School of Journalism will look like. There’s a changing landscape in both media industries and higher education right now. Journalism as a field has undergone such intense changes due to online platforms, media ownership, and a decline in newspapers, among other factors. I think this has undercut some of the most important pillars of journalism, such as the freedom of the press, which really troubles me. In addition, state universities and some private schools are hurting from cuts in state budgets, which translates to tuition increases needed to keep up with mandatory raises.
So I’m trying to collaborate with leaders on campus and within the School of Journalism to figure out how we can create a renewed commitment to journalism that is sustainable for the school’s future. I’m the kind of person who looks forward instead of back, and I try to solve problems and create new opportunities. I really want us to be able to have an active role in charting our future, and I want a strong journalism program to be maintained and emerge out of that.
Q. Lastly, what is one piece of advice you could give scientists who wish to improve their communication both inside and outside of academe?
A. You know the old saying that God gave you two ears and one mouth so we listen twice as much as we speak? I definitely think it’s important to listen, not just until the other person is finished talking so that you can talk more, but to take that other person in and try to understand them while treating them with a sense of dignity and respect. When communicating, it is important to try and understand who the other person/group is, what they care about, what’s at stake for them, and how you can connect with them.
Catherine Hudson Hudson recently earned her master’s degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Laura Lindenfeld received her master’s degree in German Literature and Language and Scandinavian studies in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. in cultural studies from the University of California, Davis. She worked at the University of Maine for 16 years, and became a faculty member and a communication researcher in the Department of Communication and Journalism and at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Lindenfeld directed the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center for two years. She is now the Executive Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Interim Dean for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.
In an ideal world, stories would always benefit both the listener and the storyteller. Unfortunately, storytelling has a dark side.
We live in a world where people have conflicts of interest and incentives to lie. In the US, the word “narrative” has acquired political baggage and in many contexts is synonymous with propaganda. For such reasons, some hard-nosed, fact-driven scientists eschew storytelling, seeing it as merely a means to an end for would-be manipulators.
The stylish and effervescent executive producer of Story Collider, Liz Neeley, couldn’t disagree more. Story Collider is a non-profit organization that provides an outlet for scientists to share true and personal stories about science through weekly podcasts and live shows. To Liz, the best way to get the public excited about science is to make science relatable. The scientists who tell their stories on Story Collider talk not only about their science but how science weaves into their own personal narratives.
I conducted a midday interview over Skype with Liz to discuss science, art, and the ethics of storytelling, where we confronted the border between persuasion and manipulation, and why exploring that border is so essential to both scientists and the people they’re trying to reach.
So, you were driven to save these delicate ecosystems by communicating the science of climate change to the public?
Liz: Yes, I did science and science communication at SeaWeb. Back then I thought science communication was really simple: If only people knew what we know, it would change behavior. I thought it was about getting facts to people... if only people had more facts, more data. I thought that would be enough to persuade people. In science communication, this is known as “the deficit model”—I learned the hard way that the deficit model doesn’t work.
The data is so clear in terms of the life history and the population structures of these organisms. You can’t exert harvest pressures... everyone would see that it’s not sustainable. That’s why I’m fascinated by power and influence.
We’re outgunned in science, because it’s easier to tell a more interesting story if you’re not tethered to the facts.
I started digging around about how people see the world. I went from how fish perceive the world to how humans perceive the world—how we see and process the world and make meaning.
For someone who started her career just wanting to talk about data, I hated the word narrative. I thought it was childish and manipulative, or just people putting on artistic airs, but then I kept reading the literature. I couldn’t get away from it.
Ultimately, the best available science tells us that stories are more interesting and engaging than straight exposition. People understand them better, and they’re more persuasive. So, when I was recruited to join Story Collider, I saw it as a chance to do something rare in the world—to unite the full force of my intellect—my art and artistic sensibilities.
It’s powerful to work in this transdisciplinary way, where we take the art just as seriously as the science. How do we change people’s views about science specifically? This isn’t like making those people love science the way scientists do... rather, I believe science belongs to everyone and I want people to feel as much investment and ownership of it as possible. Story Collider is an opportunity to humanize scientists—their hopes, dreams, failures, disasters, the process of science, and getting away from the idea that science is a body of facts that need to be handed over. We want to invite non-scientists to explore the world the way we do.
How do you see the relationship between art and science?
I value personally two things—truth and beauty. And I think art and science help us see different dimensions of those things. Art and science require different things of us, but we sometimes forget that they also require much of the same things: caution, expertise, interpretation, and slow, painstaking discipline. Both art and science are premised on truths in the world, and I think that intellectualism, humility, and playfulness unite both.
Story Collider brings science and storytelling together, but not everyone, including some scientists, are okay with that. What are the main objections you hear to combining science and storytelling?
Liz: Some categories of objection to narrative in science are important to consider. Too much focus on character can inadvertently lead to a solo narrative, but science is collaborative and interdisciplinary. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. But stories by their nature are anecdotal; they are specific. And science is about the collective, the plural, the data. Those are reasons to be cautious. But what I often see is that in our attempt to hone our objectivity and our ability to be dispassionate about the merits of the evidence alone, it gets warped into a worldview that logic is good and emotion is bad. I have seen scientists shaking with clenched fists, saying they are not emotional about their science.
When scientists talk about storytelling, we think about “handwaving” and “just so” stories—stories that don’t hold up against the data. Stories might misrepresent the world, but storytelling is a powerful tool that can be used to build a house or to tear it down.
What are the ethics of storytelling, specifically in the context of science communication?
Liz: Stories used with the intent of communicating science should respect the agency of audiences. I find comfort and a clear line between persuasion and manipulation. The latter is never okay. The difference between persuasion and manipulation depends on the storyteller’s stance to an audience. Does the storyteller want the audience to do what she wants them to do no matter what, or does she respect the agency of the listeners? The goal should be to get people to engage in perspective-taking. The audience might not agree with you in the end and the storyteller must respect that. That’s the difference between manipulation and persuasion.
“Spin” or “spinning” something can be manipulative, but it’s also a form of framing. It’s a sense-making device, connecting information to things we already care about. Framing is how we take new information and connect it to ideas and values that we already have. It’s easy to think of metaphors. If I say this story is like David and Goliath—that’s a reference that relates it to a value system. We all have value sets.
Do you have any advice to help listeners discern truth from fiction?
Liz: In storytelling, we talk about verisimilitude—it’s about honesty and authenticity, so they say. I see it in dialogue: do the characters in this story sound true? If I’m talking about a 16 year old, is that how a 16 year old talks? It’s a combination of everything that the storyteller is bringing to the stage, is it plausible, does it make sense?
Does it matter if a story is true? Of course. Does it matter if everything is factually precise? Maybe less so. It’s the difference between accuracy and precision. We strive for accuracy in science communication, but the degree of precision will be different depending on the audience. There are also details that are context-dependent. If you’re telling a story about getting lost as a little kid, does it matter if it was February 2 or 3? Internal consistency is what’s important.
There is a whole field of psychology called narrative identity. How do we string our lives together? What did we do in the past, and does it predict what we might do in the future? At Story Collider, we want the stories to be true. We ask people to go through a process and examine those past memories in order to get at those truths. We believe that these are their own lives, what they make of it—it is a meaning-making device. It’s not a transcript or a record. It plays a different function.
What do you want non-scientists to know about either about scientists or the nature of science?
Liz: I hope that through Story Collider that people who haven’t thought about science since they left school, or who only know about it through movies, understand that this is a powerful, beautiful way of looking at the world. It doesn’t require any unique genius. All kinds of people with a variety of skills, strengths, and backgrounds do science. Just like any other profession we have good days and bad days, but we are striving for something greater than ourselves. I hope they see the passion, love, and dedication of those of us who devote our lives to science.
Written by Jessica Tir (@jessicatir), edited by Simon Bakke
Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for networking with other researchers and connecting your work with new audiences. But while it seems lower-stakes than more formal modes of communication such as articles and public talks, it requires thoughtful use to get the most out of it.
Why should you bother putting in the effort? Actively working to improve your Twitter communication can help you find unexpected collaborators, get your research noticed, and push your work beyond the bubble of academia. Admittedly, I’m still working on building my social media presence — navigating the art of microblogging can be a challenge. I’ve been researching how to make the most out of my Twitter profile, and here are some important takeaways:
Matthew Hurteau, a professor teaching science policy at the University of New Mexico, asked his students for their perspective on how effective scientists are at using Twitter. Their opinions generated a lot of conversation and controversy in the science communication Twitter community. One concept that really stuck with me was that many thought it’s pointless to share new publications without including a one-line summary or call to action.
My suggestion: If you want your work to reach non-scientists, avoid jargon in your tweet. Consider linking to a blog post or article instead of a journal publication to make your research easier to digest for those who don’t have a background in your area. However, f you’re sharing a technical piece, you may want to use a tagline that will make researchers in your field want to click. Be mindful of how narrow you want to make your target audience.
4. Engage within and beyond your subfield
In ecology, a community of many different species that interact with each other — but not with species outside the community — is called “modular.” There may be plenty of interactions happening within this community, but very few interactions between communities.
This situation is a great metaphor for how scientific information might spread on Twitter. A communicator may generate a lot of conversation and tweet effectively, but their interactions could become modular, staying clumped within their subfield and not reaching new audiences. Instead of waiting for these interactions to come to you, actively seek them out! Follow people who study things that you don’t.
Most importantly… Twitter is a social network – so be social!
By Meghan Parsley
Edited by Simon Bakke
Learning that goes both ways
Letters to a Pre-Scientist is a program whose goal is to make these connections a reality. Their mission is to “demystify science careers by creating personal connections between students from high-poverty schools and real scientists”. To do this, they pair scientists and students as pen pals, and over the course of a school year, grade 6-8 students exchange letters with a scientist that specializes in a subject area they find interesting. Middle school students get a chance to hone their reading and writing skills and get exposure to STEM career paths. And scientists get to practice science communication to younger audiences in a one-on-one setting.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be one of those scientists talking with a middle school student. We were matched as pen pals and exchanged letters throughout the year. In our letters we talked about the student’s interests, career aspirations, and my own work as a scientist. Believe me, she asked a lot of great questions. Some of our correspondence also included photos, drawings and STEM activities for her to explore science further.
There are three key beliefs and strategies of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program that encourage successful experiences:
However, joining their mailing list will keep you up to date on other outreach opportunities and ensure you don’t miss the window to sign up for next year’s program. With the help of participating scientists and teachers, we can demystify STEM careers to younger students and encourage all students' futures in science.
Meghan Parsley is a Ph.D. student in Environment and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. @MBParsley
Will’s talk, “How to sound smart in your TedX talk,” has been viewed 7.3 million times since it was first posted on Youtube three years ago. This says something powerful about the importance of how to deliver a message. According to Joyce Russell in her article “Career Coach: The wrong tone can spoil the message”, a quality delivery often comes down to one single aspect of communication: tone. “Our tone conveys our attitude,” says Joyce, who has spent more than 25 years coaching executives on everything from public speaking to interpersonal communication. “Sometimes our tone has a greater impact on our audience than our actual message.”
That’s why, in science communication, getting your message across is less about the content of the message itself, but rather how it’s delivered.
Let’s face it. Getting people excited about science is not easy. The task becomes even more difficult when science is communicated blandly and without consideration for how it's presented — which is, unfortunately, all too often the case. When this happens, science loses its appeal, and with its appeal, the opportunity to connect with a larger audience. It's doomed to remain trapped in the confines of academia.
Other influential public speakers also agree with Joyce. Dale Carnegie, in his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” — perhaps the most widely read book on social communication skills — notes how tone is essential in conveying emotions, and emotions are key to successfully winning people over with a memorable message. “If you want others to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic,” he writes. And that's especially relevant when it comes to science.
Enthusiasm translates into passion, and passion is addictive — it’s contagious. Research has shown that “mood contagion” is often the reason why we believe an idea or why we choose to follow a particular leader. It might also be the reason we become interested in something in the first place. For science, it might just be the missing link between engaging with academically- savvy “sciencephiles” and successfully attracting a more passively-interested public.
My advice to scientists and science communicators? Next time you’re presenting in front of a crowd, be sure to show your passion. Adjust your tone so that people know how excited you are about science. Remember what makes you excited about it. Make what can appear to be a “boring” talk into a life-changing experience. Repeat the phrase: “isn’t this amazing?!” because chances are that, with enough vivacity injected into scientific findings, people will agree with you.
Bernardo on Twitter: @BernardoTraver2
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