The Political Nature of Science

Did you ever wonder why it seems republicans and democrats disagree over certain scientific phenomenon?  It’s not your imagination: science and politics have, and always will be intertwined.  Today I will explore the political nature of science and how you can use this information as a science communicator.  

Science and Politics in Real Life: Climate Change

The most obvious and current scientific issue that has become politicized is climate change.  Although for years scientists have been warning about climate change risks, only recently has this topic become more salient within the global public and political sphere.

In general, republicans (particularly those in elected positions) tend to show doubt of the existence or severity of climate change.  Some even go so far as to call climate change a hoax. On the other side, democrats tend to argue that climate change is a real threat, and policy should be created to mitigate its impending effects.  While one can speculate that personal interests drive these opinions (ie: it’s not within Exxon-Mobile’s financial interests to admit that fossil fuels contribute to climate change), other factors could be at play.  

Confirmation bias, which I’ll cover in a later post, could be one reason for this cognitive dissonance.  People like to be right, and do not actively go out and find information that counters what they believe to be true.  Another could be surrounding yourself with people who hold your beliefs.  If you are only around others who are climate change deniers or sceptics, you are unlikely to change your opinion.

Why the Political Nature of Science Matters

As a science communicator, it’s important to keep in mind that some topics such as climate change can be controversial.  Knowing why these concepts are controversial is the first step towards putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and not isolating them.  It’s not possible to change everyone’s mind, but knowing the politicalization of science will prepare you to frame your comments around the science itself, and not the politics behind it.  Remember, in having a scientific debate, avoid attacking the person and their political party affiliation.  Keep the focus on the arguments and the evidence.  

Have you ever had a political debate over a science topic?  Share your experiences in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  Next time, I’ll talk about confirmation bias, tying together some of these concepts I’ve been discussing so far. Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

Why Narrative Works in Science Communication

In a previous post, I talked about why Scientific data itself isn’t enough to change public opinions on science. How then do scientists convince the public to accept established truths?  If you’ve already read the previous article about how to not isolate your audience, it’s time to work on a proven method of communicating science: narrative.  Narrative, or using stories, is a powerful way for scientists to communicate to the public.  In this article, I explain why.

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Narratives are Universal

From old cave paintings thousands of years old to latest TV drama, narratives have evolved with humans.  In fact, telling stories is a defining aspect of humanity.  According to this article: “Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history.” I dare you to find any country whose culture does not include fables, legends, or myths.  Not everyone understands complicated scientific concepts, but they do understand and recognize stories.

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Narratives Create Empathy and Teach

Believe it or not, there is scientifically grounded evidence that supports the power of storytelling.  Ever heard of the brain’s mirror neuron system?  In a nutshell, the neurons that fire in my brain when I perform a task (for example, picking up a pencil) are the same ones that also fire when I see someone else perform the same task.  The mirror neuron system is the reason why humans have, and continue to, evolve.  By watching others perform a task, we can then mimic that task, and in doing so, learn.  As science communicators, it is imperative to teach your audience if you are looking for grant money, policy change, or to dispel misinformation. Narratives are more powerful than data at communicating information because they cause the brain’s mirror neuron system to fire.

Stories also allows us to empathise with others.  When we see someone sad, we can understand their distress thanks to our mirror neurons.  Reading a narrative creates the same effect, called narrative transport.  Data on the other hand, doesn’t cause our mirror neuron system to fire (see my previous post on data for more).  Why should we care about empathy?  Empathy helps us develop our social knowledge and get along better with others.  We learn about how to live in a social world through stories.  In science communication, we can use this knowledge to promote social norms regarding things such as health or environmental stewardship.

Narratives are Persuasive

For science communicators, narrative is a powerful tool for persuading others to adopt healthier lifestyles, become more environmentally conscience, or create policy change.  A study done by Emily Moyer-Gusé found that narratives in the form of entertainment are more persuasive than overtly persuasive messages.  Why is this so? As mentioned earlier, narratives allow a reader to be transported into a story.  While engaged in a story, the audience is less likely to resist the message.  Another study found that the more transported a reader is into a story, the more likely they are to accept the main message.

By now, perhaps you’re thinking that I am arguing for stories such as those in children’s books.  That’s not the case.  Non-fiction narratives in fact were found to create equal amounts of transport as fiction narratives.  

How You Can use Narrative 

Now that you know the power of storytelling in communicating science, how can you use this in your field?  Some of the most effective science articles I read in the news are structured like stories.  They start with a person’s plight, then go on to explain the science (ie: cancer), then return back to the person.  To you, the data you collect or research may tell a story, but that’s not the case for a general. audience.  People like stories because they give patterns and meaning to your data.  Don’t leave the human aspect out of your science communication.

Have you ever used storytelling while communicating science?  Share your stories in the comment section below.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  Next time, I’ll talk dig into the messy, tangled web where science and politics overlap. Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

How to Talk About Science Without Isolating Your Audience

When I talk to scientists or science enthusiasts, one of their greatest frustrations in communicating science is facing an unresponsive audience.  It’s hard to try to argue for climate change or evolution with someone else whose beliefs are firm and unwavering.  

Some science based Facebook or Twitter pages tend to make this disconnect worse by mocking people who don’t accept scientific facts.  I started following some of these pages myself because I like being connected to other science enthusiasts.  I was shocked though by some of the memes and posts that outright personally attack the misinformed public, or people who spread science misinformation.  While I understand their motivations and frustrations, these pages isolate the general public and aren’t helping.  How then do you as a scientist avoid these common pitfalls and open up lines of communication?  In my last article, I ended with seeing scientific argument as a partnership.  Here, I outline my tips and tricks for effective science communication that won’t isolate others.  

Avoid logical fallacies

Believe it or not, even though a lot of these pages on social media are run by intelligent people with scientific backgrounds, they commit the worst logical fallacy: ad hominems.  An ad hominem is a personal attack, which literally means “to the person.”  Name calling, swearing, and threats are all ways to commit an ad hominem.  These attacks are either directed at people who peddle products based on pseudoscience, or the general public who doesn’t have an advanced understanding of science.  While both of these groups of people can pose challenges and barriers to effective science communication, personally attacking them is not the right method.  Here are some examples of these sorts of posts floating around Facebook:

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The issue with ad hominems is that they attacks the person rather than the argument itself.  If you want to change someone’s mind, take the focus off of them and stick to the evidence.  

Put yourself in the audience’s shoes

Take a step back and look at how far your education has evolved since you were a little kid.  From the time your interest in science sparked to today, you have become (to some degree) an expert on science.  Even if you don’t have a PhD, perhaps you’ve taught yourself enough science to know more than the general public.  Now try to think about how you learned science growing up.  Who were your favorite teachers?  How did they help you to understand scientific concepts?  Keep in mind when you’re having a debate with someone about climate change that they might not know as much about the topic as you do.  Think about how you frame your arguments knowing that the other person probably doesn’t have the same arsenal of facts and data as you do.  With that in mind…

Don’t use technical jargon

Scientific terminology is appropriate in a research paper or at a conference, but not when you are speaking to a general audience.  Use simpler terms and try to create comparisons to simpler, more well-known concepts.  As I’ll get to in a later post, this is communicating science using metaphor, and it’s extremely effective.  This also will make you seem more relatable and less elitist to whomever you’re speaking to.

Seek collaboration, not competition

I ended my last post stressing the importance of seeing science communication as a communal process rather than a debate.  Again, I’d like to stress the importance of working together and reiterate that this is the best way to avoid isolating your audience.  Creating an “us vs them” mentality is counterproductive and at best will make your audience trust you less.  Trust, as you’ll soon learn, is another important key to science communication.

With these tips, you can reach a level of mutual respect between you and the general public.  Don’t make the mistake of other science social media pages that isolate and attack the very people whose minds they are trying to change.

Have you seen any examples of bad science communication?  Share your stories in the comments below.

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll talk about the power of using stories in communicating science.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

Why Your Scientific Data Isn’t Changing Anyone’s Opinions

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Have you ever been in a debate with someone over climate change, evolution, or vaccines, only to notice that facts are not swaying their opinion? You’re not alone.  As scientists, it seems given that when faced with (proven) facts or data, you should accept them.  That’s not the case for the general public.  In this post, I’ll explain why the majority of people don’t respond to scientific data, and how you can use this knowledge to become a more effective science communicator.

When humans have a knowledge gap in one area, they rely on shortcuts, or “heuristics” to make decisions more quickly.  Sometimes, the shortcut is basing an opinion on past experiences.  For example, if you weren’t alive when polio was prevalent, your likelihood of understanding the importance of vaccines, and preferring the risk (which is actually non-existent) of autism over polio might be less than someone who saw a sibling become paralyzed from polio.  Not having a past context to relate to can make it very difficult for scientists to counter scientific misperceptions using data.

Another challenge to arguing with data is rooted deeply within the human subconscious.  Sometimes our data doesn’t align with people’s conceptualization of a scientific topic.  One study on climate change found that people who do not see climate change as a threat perceive climate change as an object, not a process.  This deeply embedded misperception makes presenting facts as effective as putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound.  This finding hints at the importance of metaphor in communicating science, a topic I’ll cover in a future post.

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Perhaps one of the most prevalent heuristics guiding science perceptions (and misconceptions) is politics.  In a later post, I’ll go into the specifics behind the politicalization of science.  For now, it’s important to accept that many scientific topics, particularly climate change, have become intertwined with political dogma.  As an example, your political party affiliation almost always will determine whether you see climate change as a threat or not.  Politics can unfortunately cause the public to be misinformed. According to a Dartmouth study, it is extremely difficult to counter a misinformed public that is relies on political heuristics to form opinions.  

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All of these heuristics boil down to the key issue with using data in scientific arguments: people do not like to be told outright that they are wrong.  Knowing all this, how does a science communicator counter misinformation if we can’t whip out a graph or statistics? Julia Galef, a science educator, public speaker, and President at the Center for Applied Rationality, confers that the best way to engage in a rational argument is to reframe it as a partnership.  Trying to “win” an argument and determine who is “right” and who is “wrong” only fosters a hostile exchange.  Instead, next time you are arguing with someone who is convinced that vaccines cause autism, take a second to recast you and the other person as two equals collaborating on finding the right answer. As Galef states, this sort of mindset allows you to focus on the arguments themselves, not who will walk away triumphant.  

What have your experiences having arguments about science been like?  Share your stories in the comments below. 

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to avoid isolating your audience while communicating science.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

7 Things All Scientists Should Know About Communicating with the Public

Most scientists know that effective science communication is a crucial part of their job.  Whether you are speaking at a conference, teaching a class, applying for a grant, or having a daily conversation with someone outside your field, lack of effective science communication can lead to mistrust of science/scientists or misconceptions.  Over the next few months, I’ll be guiding scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts on how to successfully talk about science to the public. To start this series, today I’ll introduce the top seven things all scientists should know when communicating to the public.  In following posts, I’ll be expanding upon each of these topics and show you how you can integrate this knowledge into your daily life as a science communicator.

  • Data doesn’t change opinions

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When you have a strong science background, you know the importance of data.  Data=facts=truth.  Data is indisputable. Most scientists would agree that new data adds to their knowledge base and can change previously held assumptions. The public however does not react the same way.  Data is un-relatable to a general audience.  Instead…

  • Tell a story

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People don’t respond to data the way they do to stories.  Why?  Story telling is an inherent aspect of humanity.  Because of our desire to create meaning and order out of patterns, humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time.  If you tell your audience a story, they are much more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

  • Don’t isolate your audience

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It’s frustrating to see all of the pseudoscience prevalent in modern society.  Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, the Flat Earth Society (yes really, these people exist).  Why do people fall so easily for pseudoscience?  It can be easy for scientists or science enthusiasts to mock, attack, or belittle these people.  Doing so however is not going to get your audience to change their views or see the established truths.

  • Science and politics: forever intertwined

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Climate change and evolution: two examples of how science can be polarizing.  Suddenly it seems like climate change is an important issue to democrats, while republicans doubt its authenticity.  Evolution has always been a moral issue as it counters some Christians’ beliefs about creation and the Bible. If you’re going to be an effective science communicator, the first thing you have to accept is that science will always be politicized.

  • “Tell me what I already believe”

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When someone believes something, most will want to continue believing it.  It takes work to seek knowledge that goes against what you believe and change your view points.  A lot of people are also just plain stubborn.  When you’re talking science to the general public, they are immediately going to judge you based on whether your information conforms to their previously held beliefs.

  • Trust is key

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A big barrier for scientists is trust.  If your audience can’t trust you, they aren’t going to listen to you.  This has become especially important today in the wave of pseudoscience surrounding GMOs, climate change, alternative medicine, and gluten.  In order to open lines of communication, you have to start with building trust.

  • Know your audience

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Scientists talk to each other often at lab meetings, conferences, or in social situations.  It’s easy to converse with someone when you both have the same level of knowledge in a given field.  When you’re talking to a member of the general public, you need to know the needs and expectations of your audience.  Consider what they already know, and what they need to know.  This can be a hard balance.

Communicating science with the general public is no easy feat.  There are many challenges scientists/science enthusiasts must overcome.  I highlighted above seven important things to know about communicating science to the general public.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll expand on each of these topics and show you how you can better create a healthy relationship between science and society.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  I’d love to hear from you: What questions or concerns do you have as a science communicator?

8 Science Communication Accounts You Should Follow on Twitter

There are many great science communicators that are active on Twitter. Their accounts show that it is possible to connect the general public to scientific facts. Their expertise has helped shape my personal science communication philosophy, and they can do the same for you! Here are 8 of the best #scicomm accounts that you should be following on Twitter, and why:

1) Dominique Brossard @brossard

She is a professor in and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW Madison. She shares articles (many wrote or co-wrote) on science communication, particularly on public attitudes to emerging technologies and risk communication.

2) Dietrem A. Scheufele @scheufele

Scheufele is another Life Sciences Communication Professor at UW Madison. Like Brossard, he posts articles about issues in science communication often. He also talks about the political nature of science communication.

3) Quora Science @q_sciencewritin

According to their website, Quora’s mission is to “share and grow the world’s knowledge.” Under their large umbrella of topics, their science writing Twitter page is full of interesting articles related to science writing originally posted to Quora’s website.

4) Tiffany Lohwater @tiffanylohwater

Lohwater is the interim Chief Communications Officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her Twitter page reflects her position. Check out the interesting articles she posts related to science communication.

5) SciComm Hub @SciComm_Hub

This Twitter account is a central location of articles and blog posts related to science communication. It’s also a great resource to check out upcoming science communication conferences.

6) Roy W. Smolens Jr. @RWSmolensJr

Words of communication wisdom, interesting pictures, and interactions with other Tweeters are all on Smolens Jr.’s Twitter page. His background in strategic communications

7) Neil Stenhouse @n_stenhou

Another professor in the department of Life Sciences Communication at UW Madison, Stenhouse specializes in sci comm through energy and climate change politics, with a focus on civic engagement. His Twitter page reflects his professional interests with a host of relevant sci comm articles.

8) Abby Olena @abbyolena

Olena is a developmental biologist and a writer. She is a great example of why it is advantageous to be a good writer as well as a good scientist. She’s a contributor to The Scientist.