SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
10 August 2017
Volume 18 Issue 8

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What People Are Saying About “Research Communication in a Post-Truth World”

Jen Lynch, SETAC Publications Manager

On Friday, 9 June, Charles Menzie, SETAC Global Executive Director, and I attended the 2017 Wiley Society Executive Seminar in Washington, DC. The theme of the presentations was “Research Communication in a Post-Truth World,” and the talks covered the challenges of reporting science, fostering scientific collaboration and communicating uncertainty, and included a discussion panel on helping members communicate their research. I have highlighted three talks here. Learning that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) communicates all public outreach and consent information at no higher than an eighth-grade reading level and that there is a good example of science communication out there called “Why I Study Duck Genitalia” are also worth noting.

Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) started the day off with a keynote introducing the theme of the seminar. He is a scientist and represented New Jersey’s 12th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2015. He started by saying that expert opinion is off-putting and forms a chasm between a speaker and a listener, which creates a framework that makes science unattainable. It was interesting to learn that the education of all U.S. citizens was more empirically oriented prior to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which sought to create a generation of scientists and engineers. This led to silos of “scientists” and “non-scientists,” who respectively have received less of a holistic experience of either arts or sciences. Holt argued that the labels should be thrown out and that everyone should feel open to scientific thought and exploration as this applies to a broad range of matters in everyday life, business, art, music and more complex systems, such as climate change. In short, he believes that education should seek to show everyone that they, too, are scientists. Anyone can use empirical approaches to address questions and analyze information. Holt feels that poor communication by scientists is an ethical failure. He posited that even scientific journals have slipped and now use methodology and terminology that blandly report findings. The essence of science has been lost. His message was a call to journalists and scientists to change the way we talk about science, to give people ownership of science, and to be more narrative, less declarative. “Evidence,” he said, “belongs to everyone.”

Another talk I found particularly germane to the SETAC audience was “Uncertainty and the Scientific Process,” by Neda Afsarmanesh, the Deputy Director of Sense About Science USA. She set the stage by saying, “Science communication is driven by what audiences want to know, not what scientists want to say.” She went on to highlight several different instances where communication about certainty could have been clearer and how to balance exact accuracy against clarity. The best example was from renowned astrophysicist Sean Carroll. There were public concerns that the Hadron collider would cause a black hole that would eat the world, and Carroll responded by stating there was a “10–25 percent chance” that it could happen. The public heard, “SO THERE IS A CHANCE?!” Carroll felt that he was being honest – we have considered this possibility, here is the probability of that happening – but it backfired. Afsarmanesh suggested that in this instance, since the likelihood was so miniscule as to be impossible, the answer to public concern should have been reassurance. “No, this will not happen.” Afsarmanesh went on to highlight the “power of many studies” as a way to show the scientific progress that leads to a higher level of certainty and the strength that visuals and multimedia can bring to a story with risk.

The meeting closed with a keynote by Robert Krulwich, co-host of the National Public Radio’s RadioLab. He is a storyteller, drawing on the stories from others. He recalled E.O. Wilson’s memory of crouching in the ocean off the coast of Paradise Beach at the tender age of seven to stare for hours at a jellyfish. In his view, the goal of RadioLab and science communication is to spark an interest from the audience, to share the wonder that you feel about your research. Somewhere along the way, scientists lose touch with their inner child and become more clinical and exacting with their language. Krulwich felt that when you tell a story, you can invite the listener or reader into authorship – setting a stage allows you to agree on the facts so the crux of the story is more palatable.

As I was listening to Krulwich read from E.O.’s memoir, I imagined a seven-year old E.O. Wilson, looking at a monster, warm wind blowing his hair around as he moves back and forth through gently lapping waves to avoid long, stringy tentacles. I can see the sun slowly sinking from the sky. Your Wilson and my Wilson probably look different in our minds, maybe you don’t want a wind and the sea is quite calm. But, if I were to now write, “Little did young E.O. know that this pulsating, floating monster was capable of traveling backwards in time to younger versions of itself in times of stress and that it had the ability to clone itself hundreds of times over.” Do you want to know more about the jellyfish? Have you been hooked with the young boy’s wonder?

Krulwich’s storytelling was inspirational. So, if you can tap into the awe of your research and communicate that with feeling, you can similarly engage your audience and bring them along for a wondrous ride.

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