Thursday, March 28, 2013

Culture Wars: What I'm taking home with me

What I'm taking home from the Catalysis meeting.

I recently attended a Catalysis meeting at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on Communicating Across the Culture Wars: Engaging Media on Evolution. The meeting consisted of people with very diverse perspectives on communicating science. In fact, as I think about it now, nearly everyone had a different niche, so I'll say that there were two board categories of journalists and scientists, with many overlapping shades in between including: academics, science writers, bloggers, science educators, political scientists, education researchers, public relations specialists, and more! I cannot express how much I appreciate the opportunity to interact with this outstanding group of people.

We were asked at the end of the three days to share what we had learned, and I found it an overwhelming task. I am still absorbing, sorting through, and integrating what I learned. But, I'd like to share my initial reactions, many of which I could not have ever predicted. I'll note that these are quite personal and unique to me, and cover much more than the conference intended.

1. I have a lot of interesting stories to tell. As a scientist, I find myself surrounded by very smart people, and focusing on the small corner of research that I have the time and interest to conduct. I go to conferences and learn about all of the wonderful research going on. I am constantly challenged to learn new things, and confronted by the wealth of information that I don't know of. But this conference reminded me of all that I do have to share. Holly Dunsworth said something very profound (that I'll mess up here) to the effect that scientists should realize how much we have to say that will be new (whether it is ground-breaking to scientists or not), and thus news, to the public.

2. Communicating science is an art. Literally. We should think in pictures, and analogies, and metaphors. Cara Santa Maria said, "never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but underestimate their vocabulary". As difficult as it may be, finding visual or accessible references can dramatically improve communication about science. Ken Miller gave an amazingly simple analogy to explain the hubbub about the ENCODE project (which I'll share soon). I am inspired to develop analogies and find simple language for explaining my own science.

3. Opportunities to communicate science are waiting. I plan to seek out opportunities to share my research, and even to simply discuss science with journalists, from our Public Relations office, fostering relationships with journalists, and reaching out to our local communities. I plan to reach out to my home town newspaper (the Syracuse Journal Democrat... yes there is a Syracuse, Nebraska). Local papers are, as pointed out by Lou Dubose, starving for content. There was some debate about whether communicating science through a newspaper is a wasted effort because most people get their news via television and the internet. But, my anecdotal experience is that while people may not read the local town newspaper for the news, they do read it to find out gossip to share, and to stay in touch with one another. I would love it for science to become part of the small town discussion. Further, even local newspapers are now being published online, increasing their visibility and reach.

4. Blogging science isn't a science. To be an effective blogger of science, I need to let go (just a little) of my science-side. As a scientist, I never want to say something that is incorrect, or misleading. Nor do I want to be misinterpreted, or appear sloppy. But, I think blogging is about getting interesting material out, about starting a conversation (either on the blog, or by the reader sharing the information), and, indeed, entertainment. So, first, as Bora Zivkovic alluded to, blogs do not need to be painstakingly edited - this takes up time and results in fewer posts, and thus, fewer readers. Second, certainly the science should be accurate, but it doesn't need to be described in painful detail. Too much detail is distracting and turnoff many readers. The published manuscripts (which we can and should link to) are available for all the nitty gritty detail. 
As Brian Switek points out, not everyone should blog science, but everyone should try.

Holly Dunsworth goes into more detail about the role of social media in science today:  "This is where and what science is now".

5. I am critical, and opinionated, and stubborn. Okay, I guess I already knew that. But, I am uncomfortable interrupting other people, or speaking over them. One of the biggest divides I noticed between the participants was not between the journalists and the scientists. It was between those who dominated the spoken conversations, and those who communicated mainly through social media. Curiously, this  allowed two narratives to occur simultaneously, sometimes in parallel, and sometimes intersecting. Not only does social media offer new outlets for communicating, it simply opens the channels for communication. 

And, a couple very tangential points:
6. Work-life balance. I'm not sure the organizers could have planned it, but, for me, it was so... empowering, inspiring, comforting, to see the other active science moms and dads. I loved seeing adorable toothy grins during the break, and hearing stories about breastfeeding and college applications when walking to dinner. Even more, I appreciated that it wasn't the dominant part of the conversation, but it was just acknowledged as a part of who we are. All of the participants have their own extracurricular activities, and it was great to not feel singled-out that one of mine happens to have an opinion of her own and call me "mommy".

7. The internet can be a mean place for all. The parallel experiences shared by scientists who are Atheists and scientists who are Christians in a side conversation during one of the breaks was so refreshing. There was no yelling, no name-calling, no blaming. It was a very honest discussion of the very hurtful things that are spewed at people with both perspectives. I was surprised by how very sad I felt listening to (and feel now remembering) the terrible, unfounded, and inflammatory things that are said about scientists because of their world-views. But also impressed, and hopeful, with the respectful discussion.


I made connections at this meeting that I hope to maintain long after the meeting. I look forward to continuing discussions, and to working on the actionable items we discussed.  I will work on improving my own communications about science, and fostering relationships with the media. Oh, and getting back to research!

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