The science of science communication, summarized

No, do not do a Google image search for "scientist" if you do not want to be depressed and outraged.
Is this what scientists think of “the public”? Stock Photo from Getty via jacks of science.
I’ve identified as a scientist for most of my life, despite leaving at the end of my master’s to pursue a career in science communication. The biggest challenge for me in that career shift – next to learning to meet a zillion little deadlines every day in lieu of huge ones once every few years – was learning to be present and relatable.

By default I am the classic cerebral, shy, white-coat nerd type. I’m still constantly fighting my own tendencies to live inside my own head and spew evidence faster than others can process it – tendencies that the culture of academic science enhanced in me, even socialized into me and my former science colleagues. I think I’ve finally managed to internalize the notion that I’m not just trying to reach “the public” with science; in fact I am part of “the public.”

The point is, sometimes scientists need to be reminded of their own humanity. And who better to do that than humanities scholars?

There’s a whole issue of PNAS out dedicated to the science of science communication, based on a meeting of the same name that I at one point was dying to attend. It turns out many of the sessions were recorded and you can still view them online at the meeting website. Or you can go to the 2013 meeting!

I doubt I will make it to the 2013 meeting. But I have the videos and the special issue of PNAS to relish. One piece from the special issue, Communicating science in social settings, includes a summary and discussion of assumptions scientists often make about “the public” and “the media” that, based on lots of social science studies and extensive survey data, deserve further scrutiny. Here are my takeaways from that section:

  • 1. More information is not better.
    Resist the urge to summarize your entire body of scientific knowledge in one conversation. Make one point. Make it quickly and make it well.
  • 2. The public still trusts scientific institutions.
    There goes that excuse.
  • 3. Stories are much more powerful than lectures.
    How well do you remember the last three movies you saw? How well do you remember the last three two-hour lectures you saw?
  • 4. No one totally ignores his own worldview when interpreting scientific information.
    That includes scientists.
  • Thank you, Canada, for Chris Hadfield

    We’ve sent hundreds of people into space already, but only one of them is Chris Hadfield:

    The best of Chris Hadfield on social media (This is from the Vancouver Sun)

    Commander Hadfield returns to Earth tonight. Hadfield, I’m sure your loved ones are happier when you’re safe and sound on Earth, but many of us wish you’d stayed out in space longer so we could keep learning and sharing your joy up there.

    This is what outreach can be. More and more I’ve come to think that the best and coolest science gigs are just too precious to waste on people who aren’t outright ambassadors for the greatest things science has to offer: a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, and the beauty of curiosity and knowledge.

    Nuclear War Still Not a Good Idea

    A NASA computer simulation shows that nuclear war could throws up a huge soot cloud that warms, rises, and blocks sunlight to cool the Earth. Now that’s the kind of climate change we like to see!

    Except there’s also that pesky nuclear winter thing. You know, where the crops die for lack of sunlight and millions of people starve to death.  Not to mention the huge amounts of mutating radiation and radioactive isotopes that cause widespread death and suffering for many years afterward.  What’s more, all that crap in the upper atmosphere helps break down the ozone layer and let in even MORE cancer-causing radiation from the sun.

    The original story from National Geographic News gets it mostly right and puts the “nuclear winter” caveat up high. Unfortunately, it has an eye-catching, idiotic headline:

    Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming For Years? (National Geographic news, Feb 22)

    Which spawned a ton of stupidly angled follow-ups, some from usually decent news sources:

    A Small Nuclear War Would Stall Global Warming (Live Science, 2011 Feb 28)

    Reuters picked up the story more than a week later, which is a sign of desperation for copy. Their version of the story doesn’t mention nuclear winter effects till near the end, which is news-speak for “that part is not important or background.” Actually, it IS important, and if you spent five minutes THINKING about the background info, you would realize that putting global warming in the lede and head is a totally cheap scrabble for readership:

    NASA: Limited nuclear war could pause global warming (Reuters, 2011 Mar 03)

    And it’s just a matter of time until a conservative news source like New American pitches the story as proof that government scientists are crazy:

    Govt Scientists Propose Nuclear War to Curb Global Warming (New American, 2011 Mar 03)

    Really, this research is about NASA flexing its computer modeling muscles. That nuclear war would be a devastatingly bad thing is decades-old news. The NEWS is that we have a much better ability to describe exactly how bad. Wired, thank goodness, got it right:

    How One Nuclear Skirmish Could Wreck the Planet (Wired, 2011 Feb 25)

    Yay Wired.com. Boo everyone else.