Tag Archives: Science Communication

AAAS 2017 Conference Recap

The program book for the 2017 AAAS conference. Photo by me.

The program book for the 2017 AAAS conference. Photo by me.

This year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held it’s annual conference in my neck of the woods (Boston) so I was able to take a few days away from the office to attend. In the realm of conferences that someone in my field might consider going to, AAAS always stands out because it isn’t strictly a communication conference, and it isn’t strictly a science conference – it’s definitely both, with a generous dose of science policy thrown in for good measure. For its range of content AAAS attracts a very eclectic group of attendees. Anecdotally, I think the conference caters a lot to young people, but there are plenty of mid-career and established people who attend as well.

This was my third AAAS conference, and I think the value of science communication is becoming more and more apparent because it has taken an increasingly important place in the conference line up. Thursday (February 16, 2017) the first day of sessions, I attended the communicating science seminar, which was a lineup of three different panel talks the topics of which were: “Who’s your audience?,” “Scientist motivations, support, and challenges for public engagement,” and “The online scientist: social media and public engagement.” I think all of these sessions were sculpted to appeal to scientists more than science writers but there was a lot to get out of them as a science writer.

A few of my key take aways or sound bites from the communicating science seminar are:

  • Look for opportunities to inject science communication into events and programs that already exist, ie: setting up a hands on science booth at a local fair, to bring science into the fabric of a community.
  • Policy is shaped by the relationship between science, the decision makers, and the public. If the public doesn’t understand or doesn’t like the science, the public pressure on the decision-maker to choose an option not supported by the science can be great – this is why having strong public engagement and understanding of science is so important.
  • There is a difference between simply pushing out information and engaging with people, getting them to feel invested in the science by building a relationship.
  • Most organizations are designed with a top-down power structure, but the public often isn’t looking for top-down lectures from scientists. Adult-to-adult conversations can go a long way toward making people feel respected and thus willing to listen to what you have to say.
  • Try to avoid preconceptions about where people are starting from in their scientific understanding, and acknowledge that sometimes you are not the best person to lead a specific conversation or event. It can be incredibly valuable to facilitate the leadership of others by helping to clear their path.
  • You can step out of the role of “the expert” without abandoning your expertise. This looks like having a conversation instead of a lecture. It includes listening to people as well as sharing what you know.
  • Remember to read the room and consider the personal dynamics to gauge what type of communication is likely to provide the biggest rewards.
  • Often scientists [and communicators] think that informing the public is the goal, but perhaps the goal could be to help the public identify the scientific information that is valuable and useful to them. This might change the relationship people have with science and scientists.
  • Two of the most common barriers to science communication and outreach for scientists are time and a lack of institutional buy-in that engaging the public is a part of the job rather than a side interest. The ideal scenario is one in which science communication activities are seen as helpful to one’s career as a scientist.
  • People enjoy being told a story, it is often easier and more like science to provide just the facts but for the public facts need framing. Giving the facts context can go a long way toward communicating their value.

Overall Thursday brought a series of interesting conversations, with a great lineup of speakers who brought a nice array of points of view to the table. There were a lot of scientists in the room (they did an informal poll by show of hands) who self-identified as interested in doing more science communication, which I think is a great thing. This shows scientists have bought into the importance of outreach and are looking for avenues to explore. A lot of these lessons about effective engagement of audiences are applicable in my work too. For me, the most striking thing was that respect for the people you’re trying to reach is key.

On Friday (February 17, 2017) Naomi Oreskes gave a plenary talk called “The Scientist as Sentinel” that touched on a lot of the ideas that were mentioned during the communicating science seminars. Oreskes is the author of the book Merchants of Doubt about the scientific “experts” brought in to shape public opinion and policy on everything from smoking to climate change. It’s a wonderful book, and, though it certainly filled me with righteous indignation, I would encourage everyone to read it. Oreskes’ talk was about the role that scientists can (and should be encouraged) to take in standing up for their science and themselves. She started off by saying that often scientists want there to be a bright line between science and policy, and as such they tend to want to “let the facts speak for themselves” because speaking up publicly about science dulls that bright line.

Oreskes talked about how their is a continuum of ways scientists can approach defending their work ranging from completely hands-off, leaving it to others to communicate with the public, all the way to the activist ideal, suggesting policy and perhaps even demonstrating (or getting arrested) in defense of the work. She advocated that scientists could seek middle ground, as a “responsible scientist” model of outreach.

The description of Oreskes talk in the program. Photo by me.

The description of Oreskes talk in the program. Photo by me.

Oreskes made the comment that [with regards to climate change] what is rational is to be alarmed, and what is irrational is to be complacent. Scientists, who bask in the identity of being rational, can therefore identify the value in speaking up. She brought up the idea that climate change denial is not about facts, because, if it were, the alignment between a person’s political affiliation and their beliefs about climate change wouldn’t be so strong. When arguments aren’t about facts, they can’t be refuted with simply more facts. When it comes to scientifically controversial issues, the argument is often the same, if we deal with [insert issue here] it will lead to bigger government, and thus constriction of our freedoms. It isn’t a scientific controversy at all, but a clash of political ideologies. Scientists aren’t going to get very far bringing climate data to an economic and political ideology battle.

Oreskes put our current landscape for scientists speaking up against the historical backdrop of the scientists who spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons. Often, these were scientists who were involved in their creation. Her argument was that those scientists never lost scientific credibility for the act of taking a stand. Their science is still regarded with respect by their peers and the public. The same can be true for scientists who take a stand today. One of her closing thoughts was that scientists who have become the target of personal attacks were not attacked because they spoke out in public, instead they became public figures because they were attacked for their work. Ignoring the situation will not help or insulate scientists from the need to defend important work.

For me, Oreskes talk was one of the highlights of the conference, and I’m glad I was able to attend.

Of the rest of the sessions that I attended over the course of the conference there are two topics that stood out to me as particularly important (and about which there were several sessions each). The first is CRISPR, and the ethics, policy, and scientific progress being made with regards to human gene editing. The second was fake news and the distortion of facts. Both of these seemed like trends with regards to what people are concerned about and interested in.

From the CRISPR sessions, one of the main ideas that I took away is that if (as is currently recommended by the National Academies) human gene editing is only urged for “serious” health problems we need to define what counts as serious, and determine who gets to make that decision. If we are urging against changes that could be considered “enhancements” we need to find the line between treatment and enhancement, and, again, decide who will make that decision. If we’re looking to our government to make these policy decisions, it’s important to remember that, due to the separation of church and state federal scientific agencies (such as the Food and Drug Administration) don’t have the mandate to take religious beliefs into account when making decisions, despite the often religious-based concerns held by the public.

From the fake news sessions, what I walked away with was a sense that while it is a problem, there is reason to hope because fake news has always existed. Media has always been fragmented, rather than monolithic, and there have always been issues that Americans did not debate civilly. Fake news used to be found most often in the fringe – radio, newsletters, and in face-to-face conversations. The internet has changed the accessibility and spread of fake news. But even “traditional” outlets like television have been responsible for the spread of false ideas, like the fact that a majority of Americans believe that Sarah Palin uttered the words “I can see Russia from my house” when really it was Tina Fey, pretending to be Palin on Saturday Night Live. From all of this it may seem like people don’t care about or respect science, but they do. If you didn’t value science, you wouldn’t want to have facts or data on your side. Perhaps there is a way to tap into that trust in science.

Overall it was a conference that was very applicable to our current science communication landscape, and that left me with plenty to think about with regards to how I can be most effective in my job moving forward.

Note: I did not individually call out many of the speakers in the sessions I attended (though I did link to some and all can be found in the AAAS 2017 program). This is because, by and large, what I’ve written here is my synthesis of what I heard, sometimes combining several speakers and mostly put into my own words. I did not want to put responsibility for my interpretation of information on someone else unless I felt confident that my notes could accurately quote them. I do want to be very clear that these are not original ideas of mine but my interpretation of what others shared.

Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

Update #3 [Up at the top, so that hopefully people read it.] Does the title of this post make you angry? Well, you’re not alone. I continue to hear from many people who think I am downright stupid for daring to ask this question. Seeing all the backlash, I’ll be first to admit that I wish I had titled it something less provocative (even though it didn’t feel all that provocative at the time.) All I want to suggest is that we hold up some other examples of good science communicators, I don’t want to, or think that we can, erase the past. Sagan has a deity-like position for some people, and I didn’t do a very good job of explaining why that makes me feel so bad sometimes. I wanted to offer a different point of view. As was said to me on twitter, we should recognize Sagan the way we recognize Da Vinci, Einstein, Galileo – as greats. That doesn’t mean we should let that stall our ability to move forward and try to make new great things, with new great people.

Update #4 You know, the moment I had to ask my Mom (because my computer was giving me trouble and I couldn’t log into my own site – go figure) to log in to this site to respond to a comment to say that I don’t think Sagan hated women kind of made me want to give up completely. But I’ve read two thoughtful responses to my post, and I realized that the main thing I’m not saying is why I felt the need to write this in the first place. When we hold up Sagan again and again as the greatest there ever was, when we take his quotes and put them on pretty pictures that go viral, when the TV special continues to live online, when we talk again and again about how this one person inspired humanity and made people see that science is human – and all of it makes me feel nothing, I can’t help but think that perhaps I’m less than human. I joked with a friend yesterday that perhaps I’m just dead inside, but it isn’t really a joke to me. If Sagan represents all that is good, and I don’t understand it, then I can’t be good. So, if you want to know where this post was written, it was written from a place of fear and self doubt.

I am hopelessly optimistic about life to the point of near desperation to find the good in everything. So I thought, well, if I feel this way, other people must too. I warped that thinking into the blanket statements that caused so much of the trouble in this post. I know better than to publish without letting something sit so I can rethink it, and I broke my own rule, and made a mistake here. Some people have reached out to me to say they shared my feelings. So, to those people, I hope knowing you aren’t alone in not feeling so inspired makes you feel better.

My problem isn’t really with Sagan himself, and I didn’t do a good job of explaining that I take issue with the culture surrounding Sagan, with the way he is idolized as a one-and-only, with the vehemence of some of his fans. People have told me he would also promote women and diversity, which is a good thing. I do still think that other examples are needed not just to show a different approach to science communication, but to show different people to encourage other people that they can do this, even if they don’t see themselves in Sagan.

To everyone who challenged me to refine my thinking and more clearly state my point of view, you are everything I love about the Internet and I thank you for keeping your calm demeanor and engaging with me in a productive way. To everyone who called me stupid, self-absorbed, uneducated, and told me to learn my place, to learn some “respect, baby” well, I don’t particularly know what to say to you, but I hope you feel better too. To those who accused me of having no appreciation for the past, disrespecting my parents (what? – I felt so bad about that I even asked them, and they laughed at me) and wanting a world of nothing but listicles and Honey-Boo-Boo and instant gratification – that wasn’t the point I tried to make, which I admit to failing to make the first time, and I hope you’ll think again about what I’m actually asking us to do.

If what the world really needs are more and more Sagans, I guess I may be out of a job. But, I continue to think that I don’t really want to try to be anybody else, that’s the whole problem with idol worship, and I just want to try to make my own good things. Quite frankly, I don’t think we even CAN have another Sagan – it’s a very different world. I hope that in holding up other people as examples we can drive home the idea that there is more than one way to do something, more than one way to reach people, more than one way to do something good.

I also want to say that to those that called me out on categorizing Sagan based on his appearance, you’re right that I hate when it gets done to me, and as frustrating as I can get about it, it is still not right to categorize someone else that way. It wasn’t a productive way to have this conversation. If I offended you, but you kept quiet about it, you have my sincere apology too. The body of this post is largely intact, all of my flaws and all, so you can read the original below along with the other updates. I would also encourage you to read the response posts here and here.

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other person from my parents 1970’s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

[This paragraph is edited] I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid cares about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. [Please see Updates #1 and #2 at the bottom of this post, to address the flaw in this blanket statement.] We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

[This paragraph is edited] It isn’t just the age thing. I recently read Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers by Apoorva Mandavilli about the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, and how there was a distinct lack of minorities, let alone minority women. She said:

“You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.”

That idea stuck with me. Role models are a great thing, and I get that Sagan inspired people to become scientists themselves. But, if we want to seriously address issues of diversity in science and science communication holding up the stereotypical scientist over and over again isn’t doing anyone any favors. I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s inspiration for pursuing science, let alone belittle Sagan himself. I respect the work Sagan did as a scientist and communicator. I respect that at the time he brought science into the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been done before. But, we need new things.

We need things that fit a modern era, things that will supplement the nerdy white dude stereotype (I mean, I generally like nerdy white dudes, you don’t have to leave, we just need other people too.) I believe that we can do better than lamenting some guy in a turtleneck as if nothing good will ever happen again. We can focus on diversity – showing men and women, of different ethnicities and backgrounds that science isn’t only for nerds.

The answer isn’t as simple as rebooting Cosmos, as FOX is doing, and sticking Neil deGrasse Tyson in front of the camera. While Tyson is far more relevant, and yes is a minority, we still need to get women, other minorities, and young people doing all kinds of science out in public view. If we want diversity we need to show people that people just like them can, and do, like science. We need everybody.

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I realize that instinctively we want to defend our childhood heroes. You may be sitting at your computer thinking, “but, but, you just don’t GET it, you don’t understand what a big impact Sagan had.” You are right, and that is 100% my point. I’m an admittedly nerdy, white, science communicator. If I don’t care about Sagan, do you honestly think the general public does? Science, particularly space, yes. Sagan, nope.

I sincerely hope the reboot of Cosmos starring Tyson does well, because science programming on a major television network in primetime is a good thing. I have  faith that the science will be sound, and we are in dire need of an upgrade from Mermaids and Megalodons so I think it’s great. That said, I still think it is a complete waste of our efforts to keep going on and on about WHO will be the next Sagan when we should really be talking about HOW we’re going to engage with a diverse audience about science and WHAT platforms and tools will we use to be effective. To me, those are far more productive conversations to have.

The science isn’t going to stop being interesting, it isn’t going to stop being relevant – but if we can’t push our professional conversations and aspirations past Sagan, we will stop being relevant.

Bonus: I didn’t know where to include this link, but here is Hope Jahren’s Ode to Carl Sagan. You should probably read it.

Update: Well, this is easily the most talked about post I’ve ever written. Lots of feedback here and on twitter. Most prominent are the voices saying but I love Sagan, he did such good things. Rock on, I’m not saying that he didn’t. Keep your fondness for him. There are young people who find Sagan inspiring. Blanket statements like the ones I made here don’t do justice to the fact that really, what inspires you is deeply personal. To each, their own. I took a hard line stance because it feels important to me for people to feel comfortable admitting that Sagan doesn’t inspire them if he doesn’t. Again, to each their own.  So, I nod to those young people who are inspired by Sagan, you’re right that I don’t speak for you, nor do I have a right to do so. But I also nod to everyone who said this made them feel better because other role models for science and science communication are something that many of us (if not all) would benefit from. Some people feel othered by not being into Sagan – if that makes any sense. But, I’m not trying to other anyone here either. I shouldn’t dismiss the significance of what Cosmos achieved, and should have included that we can still learn from what has been successful – even if I am seriously cautious about merely trying to replicate the past without pushing further, to do better.

Update #2: I wish I could change the title of this post to “Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan All of the Time” but it is what it is. I’m still getting comments about how wrong I am, because Sagan means so much to so many people, so to clarify: I took a very line in the sand approach in this post. I’ve talked to a lot of people since advocating for a middle of the road approach, the “we need everybody” that I mentioned. Keep Sagan, but find a way to promote others too. His popularity speaks to the fact that his work gets through to a lot of people. My blanket statements contradict that in a way that is confusing. I should have been more careful, and written about how he doesn’t get through to some people and we do need new things to get through to the people his work doesn’t reach. I don’t want us to throw away the good work that Sagan did and never talk about it ever again as if we can’t still get value from it. Keep what worked, appreciate the value added, but I still think shifting our focus to new things is beneficial.

Overheard at Sciobeantown with NESW

On June 6th, Sciobeantown and the New England Science Writers teamed up for a joint mixer at Boston’s Beehive. If you couldn’t join us, here are a few snippets (taken 100% out of context) to show you what you missed. If you have any questions about Sciobeantown, feel free to contact me, or any of the other organizers: Haley Bridger, Biochembelle, or Alberta Chu. You can also check out the website, twitter, and googlegroup.

  • Let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic…
  • So, the Mighty Ducks is actually all about class warfare.
  • Wait, since when am I the youngest?!?
  • There’s so much scicomm, we’re going to need to coordinate these dates.
  • You’re tweeting this aren’t you?
  • I went right home after you mentioned it and convinced my boss I had to go to ScioOceans.
  • You lied, we could totally still register!
  • Biochem AND a Belle… wow, that’s intimidating.
  • You weren’t at the Storycollider? It was so good!
  • Just cover one story, really, really well, that’s how you get a Pulitzer.
  • I came to Boston for all of the astronomy, there is an amazing amount here.
  • You just have to look at the statistics!
  • Just assume the doctor stance.
  • Wait, there are liberal antivaxers?
  • You might want to look at that study again, it might not be total bullshit.
  • Are the science writers about to throw down?
  • Look, I flail when I talk.
  • Of course, everyone knows Bora.
  • Well now you’re just making stuff up.
  • Tweet from @sciobeantown in Finland, we’ll cheer you on!
  • What exactly makes you a killer?
  • Mermaids? I mean how was that even a thing?
  • Try to describe something without using any adjectives! At all!
  • Your career is your oyster…or something like that.
  • Ooh, is there going to be music?
  • We’ll see you in July!

Thank you to NESW for sponsoring this event, and to everyone who came out to share ideas and build our Sciobeantown community!