LSC 432 Summary and Next Steps

Throughout the past few months, I published a series of posts about how to be a more effective science communicator.  I was prompted to take on this project through my course LSC 432: Science and Social Media.  In this class, I learned how to create a personal digital brand, optimize my Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, and pushed myself to revamp my science blog.  I started this blog as a vast space on the internet to basically gab about any science topic that I found interesting at that time.  After LSC 432, I know see why my blog didn’t get a lot of attention, and that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Blogging is different than keeping a journal.  You can’t just sit down, type whatever comes to mind, and expect people to listen to you.  What I’ve learned this semester is that blogging should have a purpose, and that purpose should be to help someone in some way.  If you’re not a professional (like me), the best way to blog is to share with others what you learned.  I realize now that before, I was holding myself back by thoughts of inadequacy.  Why would anyone want to listen to me?  I’ve never written a book and I don’t have a PhD.  I took a new approach to this blog because of LSC 432: my intention was to share with the world what I’ve learned in my Master’s degree program, with the hope that someone out there might find what I’ve learned interesting, or can relate it to their own professional or personal experiences.  

This latest series of posts has been inspired by my professor, and the many guest lecturers we had.  Did you know there are many people who make money because of their social media knowledge?  I owe a lot of what I’ve learned this semester to the guest speakers who took time out of their busy days to offer advice to me and other amateur bloggers.  What we found is that most of us were afraid to dive in and just start.  It’s surprising how all of these now very successful people once started off in our positions: feeling inadequate, not sure what they were doing, and bound to make mistakes.  However, one thing they all have in common is that they learned from their errors, kept going, and weren’t discouraged.  I don’t know if this blog will ever take off, but if that was something I wanted, I now have the knowledge to pursue such a goal.  

Where does this blog go from here?  Soon I’ll be graduating and have my Master’s degree in Life Sciences Communication.  My hope is to keep up this blog and post about new theories or methods of effective science communication as I learn and develop them as a professional science writer.  One of our guest speakers, Chris Marr wisely advised: “Be a student, not a follower.”  I intend to keep learning about science communication, and sharing with you my discoveries.

What topics/concepts of science communication would you like me to cover more?  Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

Tell Me What I Believe: What you Need to Know About Confirmation Bias

Through these past few months, I have been exploring and discovering barriers scientists/science enthusiasts face while communicating science.  Of all I’ve learned about science communication, the theory of Confirmation Bias seems to play a large role in the divide between scientists and the general public.  Really, a lot of miscommunication and pseudoscience spreads so quickly and is so readily accepted because of confirmation bias.

  • What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” Basically, if I think I’m right about something, I can Google my point of view and will most likely find information out that that confirms what I already believe, making me that much more sure of my bias.  I had my students test this out by doing a Google search on abortion.  Have the class Googled “abortion is wrong” and half Googled “abortion should be legal.”  We discussed their web results, which were reflective of the way they searched for abortion.  This simple experiment shows that unless you use very neutral terms, the way you Google a controversial issue can skew the web results you get.

  • Why should we care about confirmation bias?

With the Internet readily accessible, it is easier than ever to search for information that supports your preconceived notions.  As a science communicator, you can find yourself talking in circles to someone who did their “research” and thus knows that GMOs are evil and anyone who tells you different is a Monsanto shill.  It doesn’t matter if their are hundreds of articles out there that confirm the safety of GMOs, people who are skeptical of them will find an article that supports their beliefs and hang on to that.

  • What can science communicators do about confirmation bias?

Obviously, you can’t control people’s Googling search terms or how they seek out information.  What you can do though is be aware of current scientific issues, especially those that are tied with politics or moral issues.  As I’ve mentioned before, see a scientific argument as a partnership.  And finally, use tips from my previous posts to build trust with your audience so you can fairly recognize confirmation bias and refute with evidence.

Have you ever met someone who struggled with confirmation bias?  Share your stories in the comments section below.

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll be wrapping up this series with a reflection on what I’ve learned during the last two years in my Master’s degree program.  I will soon graduate and then hopefully apply my knowledge to a career utilizing science communication.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

 

5 Ways to Build Trust With Your Audience

The other day, I was at a cooking class and overheard a conversation between two women about the wonders of bullet-proof coffee.  I had to hold onto the table to keep my balance as my eyes rolled so hard into the back of my head.  I’d love to believe that drinking coffee laced with butter every morning is an efficient way to lose weight, but I know enough about fad diets to recognize if a diet sounds too good to be true, it is.  In my last post, I discussed how narrative plays a role in pseudoscientists tricking the general public into buying products, not getting vaccinated, or not accepting climate change.  Before pointing fingers at these people however, scientists need to take a look at the role they play in the spread of misinformation.  

First, as a scientist/science enthusiast, take a step back and look at how you are different from the general public.  You were educated or trained to think critically, analyze arguments, and gather information on a topic you are unfamiliar with. Wanting to be informed and being curious are natural aspects of a science minded person.  For the general public however, non-experts do not do this, and instead rely on their levels of trust within an institution or a professional to provide them with knowledge.  It is not enough for scientists to know things and tell them to the public.  

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Trust is key to science communication.  Here are five ways you can start to build more trust with the public:

  1. Show your credibility

For the skeptics and deniers, it is important to establish credibility with your audience.  If you are writing about climate change for example, being an expert in the field of environmental science, or citing credible sources from experts in the field is a way to start building trust with your audience.  It should be clear that you did your research on the topic and are not motivated by biases, emotion, or political agendas.

  1. Admit unknowns/limitations

To avoid sounding like a “know-it-all” or an elitist, don’t be afraid to admit the limitations of your knowledge, or things you aren’t sure about.  A sense of entitlement or “holier-than-thou” attitude can isolate your audience and cause them to not trust you.

  1. Acknowledge and address audience concerns

Even if someone has beliefs that are obviously based on pseudoscience or misinformation, do not dismiss them right away.  Listen to their opinions/perspectives and acknowledge them.  By listening, you can better understand where they got their information from, what their concerns/fears are, and how they constructed their beliefs.  Encourage your audience to debate with you and ask questions.  Acting open minded and receptive will give your audience the sense that you care, and that they can trust you.

  1. Refute pseudoscience fairly

After acknowledging the other person’s perspective, refute fairly.  It can be frustrating to talk to someone who is so obviously wrong on a topic and refuses to budge in their beliefs.  Try to not get emotionally involved.  Avoid name calling, yelling, and attacking the person.  This is the quickest way to lose your audience’s trust.  Instead, keep calm, arm yourself with evidence, and stick to the facts.

  1. Pick your battles

People don’t like being attacked for their beliefs.  Thus, as tempting as it can be to chime in when someone tells you they just bought a body wrap from It Works! that you’re better off throwing your money down the toilet and using saran wrap for the same “effects,” just don’t.  Be the trusted science-minded person who is happy to debate fairly and provide credible evidence, but isn’t a science crusader.  Follow these steps to be a trustful science person, but don’t get pushy.

Have you ever struggled with gaining the trust of a skeptic on a scientific topic?  Share your stories in the comments.

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

Why Narrative Works In Science Communication: Part II

This post is largely inspired by Michael Dahlstrom, an Associate Professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of hearing him lecture in my class LSC 430: Communicating Science with Narrative.  

In a previous post, I discussed why narrative is more effective than data in communicating science.  Dahlstrom’s presentation yesterday built upon this idea by explaining just how powerful, and thus necessary, narrative is to science communicators.  

Dahlstrom began by providing examples from a government website on the benefits of vaccines and compared this to an excerpt from an anti vaccine website.  Take a second to guess how these websites differed.

Have you formed a guess yet?

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On the government website, there were statistics and facts about the efficacy and safety of vaccines.  They cited clear reasons why parents should vaccinate their kids: prevent diseases, keep others around you safe from disease exposure, etc.  The anti-vaccine website said something along these lines: “As a mom, I have four children.  Two were vaccinated and two were not.  I can tell you from personal experience that my two unvaccinated kids are more healthy.”

Now, any skeptic or scientifically minded person might roll their eyes at this statement.  What does this person mean by “healthier?” What experiments were done?  Where is your measureable evidence?  From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that it is hard for science trained people to accept that others are more receptive to anecdotal, non-data driven “evidence.”  However, as a science communicator, we can’t brush off these types of websites, because they ARE having a great effect on vaccination rates and disease prevalence.  While the range of measles cases in the U.S. was between 37-220 from 2001-13, there were 667 reported cases in 2014.  

Overall, Dahlstrom’s conclusion was that pseudoscience movements are using narrative more than scientists.  Because of this: 1) People are more likely to trust pseudoscientists 2) People are more likely to be swayed by misinformation and 3) People are less likely to listen to scientists who provide counter-evidence.  

This information should be a wake up call for science communicators out there.  When we finally accept why no one is listening to us, we can make the switch to win the public back.  As mentioned before, the key is not isolate our audience and use narrative to our advantage.

Have you tried to use more narrative in your own science communication strategies?  Share your stories and opinions 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.