Science Communication in the Field

Last week I spent two days on a field trip with a geology class and a photography class. As part of a very unique assignment, the photography class was directed to photograph the geology class as they conducted field surveys of the subsurface geology. This week, the two classes will jointly be presenting their work in a photo gallery, open to the public. The classes’ projects should complement each other; the geology class will be presenting their research, while the photography class’s photos should help explain this research and portray it in an interesting and engaging way.

My role in this project is to help out with the science communication part. I’m also gathering some data for my own project, which will be posted soon. Mainly, though, I watched how the two classes interacted and I am supposed to tell them a bit about my own research to help them with their presentations. Turns out this is harder than I expected.

Communicating science communication is kind of like communicating science. It presents some of the same challenges. Because I have been studying this topic extensively, I have a certain level of background knowledge that others might not, and this leads me to approach the communication of science with certain assumptions. Most fundamentally, I assume that scientists generally have difficulty communicating science to non-scientists and non-scientists have a difficult time understanding it. Data shows that this is often the case, but I have to be sensitive to the fact that, when I am working directly with scientists and non-scientists, they might not think that communication is a challenge for them. And, in some cases, it might not be. I have to be careful not to assume too much about my audience when I begin giving advice on science communication. This is, ironically, the biggest piece of advice I have given to these classes: know your audience. I realize now that this is no easy task.

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Writing about climate modeling

When I set out to write an article about climate modeling, I had no idea how complicated it would be. In the end, I simply didn’t have enough time to write the article I wanted to write. I just recently finished my senior thesis in environmental policy, which took me most of the academic year to research and write, and staring down the topic of climate modeling, I felt that in order to thoroughly explain it I would have to write the equivalent of a second thesis. Journalists will seldom have this kind of time to commit to one article.

Writing this article has been a rough lesson in the limitations of practical science communication by non-experts like me. I have to understand the limits of my time and understanding, because I would rather write a more simple article of higher quality than attempt a more complex one such as the one I just posted here that definitely isn’t my best work. Moving forward, I need to learn to more efficiently find information, and realize that I can’t approach research for articles like I would approach research for my thesis. Synthesizing complex scientific information in a short period of time is certainly a learned skill that I am still building.

The Role of Peer-Reviewed Articles in Science Reporting

In the science community, if you want to know about someone’s research, you read the papers they have published in scientific journals. These papers contain all the information about their study – why the researcher thought it was relevant, what earlier research has been done, the methods the researcher used, and what conclusions they drew. These papers are the way that scientists share information, and they are written by scientists, for scientists. A scientist can be extremely successful in the science community by conducting strong, meaningful research and writing good papers. Unfortunately, outside of scientific fields (and universities, where students may be required to read scientific literature), not that many people read scientific papers. Journalists, for instance, who play a major role in making timely scientific information available to the public, often would prefer to speak directly to the author of a paper instead of simply reading the paper (Corey Hutchins, personal communication). This makes sense, considering that scientific journal articles can be daunting for non-scientists (or scientists in different fields) to read because they use very technical language and often assume background knowledge that readers in other disciplines might not have. It seems to me, then, that there might be an interesting divide in the science community between those who are good at writing technical papers but not talking about them, and those who are good at both. Because journalists would prefer to speak with experts, it is becoming increasingly important for experts to be able to verbally convey their research and understand its social and political implications. Likewise, it could also be said that journalists should become better at reading scientific literature in order to reach a wider range of experts.

On taking sides

I’m in the process of writing an article about climate modeling. There are a couple ways this could go. I could simply explain the ins and outs of climate modeling to the best of my ability, which results in a statement such as “climate models are based on x and y, etc. and can be used to predict z with some degree of uncertainty.” But let’s step back- why do I want to tell people about climate modeling? Because it’s a relevant policy topic with implications for how the world decides to respond to climate change. Some argue that models are too uncertain to be of use. Others argue that the overall message of our models is hardly uncertain despite some acceptable uncertainties in the specifics. And the models are all saying that the climate is warming and will continue to warm. So clearly, whether models are accepted is a pretty big deal. The answer to my original question, then – why am I writing this article? – is that I believe increasing peoples’ understanding of climate modeling will have some positive impact on the larger issue. If information, or if science, for that matter, is not relevant to the wider world in some way then who really cares? So if the relevant topic is uncertainty in climate models, and the purpose of my article is to contribute to the larger issue, then what good is it if I simply write an article that restates what it is that climate models do? Wouldn’t a more helpful approach be to give readers guidance as to how to interpret that information? This is where is gets tricky, because how do I do that without taking sides? If I explain why climate models are reliable despite “uncertainties,” then I’m taking a stance with political implications. Likewise, if I say anything to undermine that standpoint, I am supporting the opposite side. It seems that in science communication, once it moves beyond simply reporting the objective results of a study and begins to make that study relevant to broader issues, can become inescapably politicized. Is that a problem? Not necessarily, it just points to a need for science communicators who are able to reach out to readers across political boundaries and deliver thoroughly-researched content that does not alienate any particular viewpoint.

Writing about Science: Filling in the Gaps

What is a journalist supposed to do when there is part of a scientific study they don’t understand? For instance, while writing this recent article on nitrogen pollution from fertilizer used on rice crops, I realized that there were a number of things that I needed to explain to my readers but that I did not understand myself and were not explained well by my sources. What am I supposed to do in that situation? A good example of this is in talking about gasses released from chemical reactions involving nitrogen. I write that these reactions occur “as a result of nitrogen fertilizer dissolving in water.” To be honest, I wasn’t totally clear why these reactions happen. I am not an organic chemist, and though I understand the concept of chemical reactions, much of the description in the scientific paper I was reading went over my head. So, I used my best guess as to what the author was saying. Is this appropriate? It has its advantages and disadvantages I suppose. One advantage is that I think my guess is pretty close to what the scientist meant, and although they could surely give a more complete explanation, at least my explanation is easier for non-scientists to understand. I may have lost some of the complexity that a scientist doing research would need to know, but does the average person on the street need that detail? Probably not. On the other hand, making a habit of just filling in gaps with “best guesses” seems dangerous. Communicating science is hard enough, but if science communicators simply use their best guess every time they run into something they don’t fully understand, we are bound to have competing interpretations of the same scientific topic. Also, we could guess and get something wrong that actually is important, not realizing this because we don’t fully understand it. Thus, it seems science communicators have to do some serious homework, and should as mush as possible try to find answers to anything that is unclear before it goes in a final article. I’m realizing more and more that writing about science is hard, and I have tremendous respect for the people who do it well.

What is science communication?

“Science communication is a growing area of practice and research. During the past two decades, the number of activities, courses, and practitioners has steadily increased. But what actually is science communication? In what ways is it different to public awareness of science, public understanding of science, scientific culture, and scientific literacy? The authors review the literature to draw together a comprehensive set of definitions for these related terms. A unifying structure is presented and a contemporary definition of science communication positioned within this framework. Science communication (SciCom) is defined as the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding. The definition provides an outcomes-type view of science communication, and provides the foundations for further research and evaluation” (Burns, O’Connor, and Stocklmayer 2003).

The passage above is from an article written by Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer (2003) titled “Science Communication: A contemporary definition.” This articulate piece has helped to fill a number of gaps in my understanding of the purpose and process of science communication. For these authors, science communication is not simply linear, it is “the process by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community” (Bryant, cited in Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer 2003).

Science communication can have a number of aims. These authors cite specifically increasing “public awareness of science” (including positive attitudes towards it), “public understanding of science” (including an understanding not just of its content but processes and social factors as well), “scientific literacy” (people are “aware of, interested and involved in, form opinions about, and seek to understand science), and a culture that is appreciative and supportive of science and scientific literacy. Science communication need not always focus on all of these at all times, but “it should never be done for its own sake… it must always have predetermined and appropriate aims” in order to for it to be effective.

The process of achieving these goals can be facilitated using a variety of approaches, a “toolbox” of sorts. According to this article, the toolbox includes skills, media, activities, and dialogue that enable the process of science communication. Skills include personal and interpersonal qualities such as being comfortable and effective interacting and communicating with the public and the media. Media and Activities help make science accessible to people with “a large range of personalities, learning styles, [and] social and educational backgrounds.” These include formal classroom education (such as in high school or college), presentations and seminars, and other courses and training programs. People can also be exposed to science through informal activities like visiting museums, watching films or reading media stories about science, or exploring science on the internet. Dialogue seems to be me to be one of the most important tools. As the article states, “In spite of the prevailing bias toward presenting science to the public, science communication as defined here cannot be considered a one-way dissemination of information to the lay public.” Instead, the conversation goes both ways, because while scientists may have the facts, the public has “local knowledge of, and interest in, the problems to be solved.” In other words, scientists have something to learn too. “All science practitioners are challenged to be science communicators.”

What I take away from this article is that science communication is broad – encompassing a large variety of subjects, actors, and aims – yet in practice is must be focused on specific outcomes for specific people. Science communication is a process in which anyone can play a role, not just scientists and journalists. Understanding this, it becomes difficult to generalize questions like “what makes scientific communication effective?” because the answer inevitably depends on who and what is involved. In my research, then, I will attempt not only examine the challenges and opportunities of science communication in practice for a variety of topics, but also examine the implications of those questions for the broader arena of science communication on a societal level.

Are “science” and “information” the same thing?

The first questions that come to mind starting this project are, of course, the obvious: what is science communication? And (to put it simply), why is it a thing? By that I mean, why does science communication exist, as a study, profession, or specialty? Does it not seem remarkable that a whole separate academic field has been dedicated to the simple task of taking “science” and “communicating” it? Whether or not you answer “yes” to this question might depend somewhat on whether you think “science” and “information” are the same thing.

I’ve been reading Science and Society by Peter Daempfle (2014), an introductory textbook of sorts which “shows the reader how to think like a scientist.” Daempfle says that “a modern definition of science consists of three parts. First, it is a body of knowledge about the natural world. Second, science is a method… Third, science requires reasoning…” It is the latter two which separate science from other kinds of things we consider knowledge. Because it is developed through a stringent method and based on reason, we consider scientific knowledge to be, “the most respectable kind of knowledge” (Imre Lakatos in Curd, Cover, and Pincock, 20). But the important point is, science is more than just the knowledge it produces. It seems to me, though, when non-scientists talk about science, the most common focus is simply the knowledge part, while the rest falls by the wayside. Try Googling “science says,” it’s entertaining. But the point is, there is a widespread tendency, it seems, to focus on only what the science says with little consideration for how that conclusion was reached. Thus, communicating science isn’t just about telling people what the science says (that’s just information), but how it says it and why and whether those things impact how we should treat the information we gather from it.

I am beginning to think that herein lies the crux of science communication. Science communication isn’t just about sharing information, it’s explaining to someone how they must think about that information in order to understand it correctly. Over the course of this study, I hope to explore this claim further through cases and examples.