Archive for the ‘Science Communication’ Category

Post by : Vijayalakshmi Kalynamaran edited by Henderson

When scientific issues that directly affect human lives – climate change, vaccination and nuclear waste- are discussed and decisions have to be made at the political level, there are times when scientists encounter resistance from members of the public who oppose the scientific basis for political action.  Why is this?  What is it that makes the non-scientist think that the scientific data is wrong, or that we should not take actions based on their findings?

One can think of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge or the inability of most scientists to effectively communicate their work to non-scientists, but recent findings have uncovered another reason, one that may not be as obvious as these two seem to be.

An article published in last year’s Washington Post looks at the reasons why people oppose scientific findings based on studies conducted by several U. S. organizations.  One of the main reasons people oppose scientific findings?  Because of their personal political views.

When the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of sentiments on the issue of global warming, it revealed that college-educated republicans are less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate science versus democrats or independents.

Research also shows similar findings when raising questions dealing with vaccination or nuclear waste storage. So, for highly controversial subjects as these, it seems that politics comes first.  Providing more information to groups does not appear to change their over-arching political views about the subject.

What these findings do provide scientists is information to approach the issue of opposition to science-based findings in a different way.  And it means that one of the first steps in presenting science would be to understand the underlying reasons for opposition.

What are the motives behind the opposition?  On the surface, a scientific explanation of the effects of global warming should be acceptable to the majority of the public.  The consensus espoused by the vast majority of the scientific community, including the IPCC,  should be enough to “seal the deal” for real conversations about actions to combat global warming.  In a perfect world, these explanations would move the public and policy-makers into action.

But the world is not perfect and the political views of the public, fortified by their legislative leaders, has more to do with their ideas than that of scientific consensus.

So what is the next step? Listen to the public. Yes, scientists should engage the non-scientists in a conversation, in–depth exploratory conversations, not involving debates.

This strategy has shown great promise in dealing with nuclear waste management in Canada. The nuclear management organization engaged the public in a conversation regarding the nuclear waste storage and listened to them for 3 years. The organization also promised that it will not dump waste on the community without its consent. As a consequence, even the critics engaged in the conversation were supportive of the efforts to come up with possible solutions of nuclear waste management.

This is just one example of how engaging the public in a constructive dialogue is the key to understanding.  As scientists, policy-makers, and the public learn to be more receptive of messages from each other, there will be many more.

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Post by Vijayalakshmi “Viji” Kalyanaraman

Why should laboratory science capture the attention of the general public and the politicians? Why is it important these days?

Contemporary societies rely heavily on science and technology for everyday life, economic growth, political stability and social well-being. Science influences everything we do as human beings. It is extremely important to arrive at good science policies for the betterment of the society. First of all, for the policy makers to make informed decisions, they should be able to gather the scientific information easily. In the democratic society, not only policy makers are involved in making decisions but also the general public plays a significant role. Therefore citizens also need to understand how science is linked to society in order to provide sensible input to policy makers. To reach out to both the communities, effective science communication is the key. It is the way the populous and the politicians will be able to grasp the issues that require attention and understand the personal and behavioral changes required for living in the 21st century.

Successful communication depends on who is receiving the message.  Whereas the public is interested in how the science would affect them and their life, politicians would be interested in cost related issues and how the other entities in the society, as industries and other businesses would be affected. Scientists often discuss about their research to their fellow scientists but seldom to non-scientists. Many times the interaction between the three concerned parties (scientists, politicians and the public) is insufficient or non-existent. This is not a healthy situation to be sustained. Hence it becomes essential to talk about the motives and benefits of the science to the public and talk about political interest and economic issues as well to policy makers effectively that would facilitate a three-way conversation among the three parties.

There are numerous subjects that connect scientists with policy makers and the public. Environmental sustainability, climate changes, healthcare, clean energy, biodiversity, agriculture – these are only a few from the long list of topics linking science with society and policy makers intricately.

Al Gore, the former vice-president of the United States who had won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to understanding global warming, delivered a speech at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is worth listening. It is a fine example of how he addressed both politicians and the citizens in illustrating the issue and his research.

On one side, he was able to attract the public as he was able to relate global warming to the everyday life of the people. He was able to articulate his ideas to make an interesting story about global warming showing good examples filled with a pinch of humor. On the other side, he could influence the policy makers as he himself was a politician and had good connections with his fellow politicians; he also laid out that global warming is a global issue which needs the attention of policy makers and how can the government help alleviate the problem.

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Post by Minna Krejci

This is a new one: the newly crowned Miss USA calls herself “a huge science geek.”

The "geeky" Miss USA 2011 (http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner)

And there is at least some evidence that may back her claim.  In preliminary questions as part of the Miss USA competition, she supported teaching evolution in public schools — one of only 2 of the 51 contestants that did — by saying,

“I was taught evolution in high school.  I do believe in it.  I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.”

Later, on-air, she apparently also gave a “complex” answer regarding the question of legalizing marijuana (medically yes, otherwise no.)

Are things looking up for the next generation of geeky girls?  Will girls be less afraid to show their smarts, no longer fearing that it might make them less “cool”?  Even Miss USA geeks out about the Big Bang!

Of course, we should also consider what the standards for “geekdom” are these days.  It sounds a bit like Miss USA (Alyssa Campanella, from California) puts the Big Bang theory in the same group as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – things to believe in because it’s fun to believe in them, not necessarily because the science points to them.  (I hope that’s not really the case, but you never know.)

Hm… I just searched for “the Big Bang theory” on Wikipedia and was directed straight to an article about the sitcom.  Not even a disambiguation page first!  I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.  While it’s great that science is creeping its way further into the entertainment industry (which is obviously highly influential), I hope that the actual science doesn’t get watered down during the process of making it accessible to the public.  We want simple, not simplistic.

"The Big Bang Theory" (http://whosnews.usaweekend.com)

Back to the Miss USA pageant (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant, by the way).  Campanella wasn’t the only smarty pants competing this year.  Nicole Poteet, a radiation protection engineer with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, represented Virginia in the competition.  And what does she have to say for herself?

“Don’t tell anyone, but deep inside I’m kind of a dork.”

If Poteet’s a dork and Campanella’s a geek, dorks and geeks have sure come a long way from what I remember about high school!  Here’s to hoping that they’ll serve as good role models and help motivate and encourage tomorrow’s female engineers and scientists.

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Post by Minna Krejci

As we blast through this information age, the ease and speed with which we can acquire, process, modify, and contribute to available information continues to accelerate.  Through blogs, wikis, and other social media entities, information becomes dynamic rather than static, creating a conversation.

Visualization of the various routes through a portion of the internet, as connections between IP addresses (via Wikipedia).

The creators of the website Science 2.0 envisioned the concept of Science 2.0 as collaboration, communication, participation and publication.  Science could be communicated directly from the source instead of filtered by various limitations (such as size, or the opinion of an editor).  Scientists and non-scientists could have the opportunity to write freely about science topics that they enjoy discussing and improve their writing and communication skills.

The idea of “open science” emerged as an important element of Science 2.0, where scientific research becomes more transparent, and research results are shared openly amongst scientific and non-scientific audiences.

The merits of this approach are fairly obvious — knowledge and information can drive progress.  But there are several hitches that may need to be addressed:

Information overload:

If all information is freely available, how do you know what’s relevant and what’s not?  How much time do you spend reading websites and articles that weren’t exactly what you were looking for, possibly being led farther and farther off track?  If you’re like me, this can be known as the “where on earth did 5 hours of my day just go?” syndrome — more popularly, this is the “rabbit hole risk” of information overload.

The “spigot risk” is that information is growing exponentially, while our reading and filtering abilities are not.

Particularly due to the spigot risk, we tend to rely on external forces to do our searching, collecting, and filtering of information for us (like google searches or possibly social networks).  How is this influencing what information we end up receiving?

Quality control: 

In terms of primary scientific research and publication, there is the possibility that allowing more people to publish more data more frequently may result in a general decrease in the quality of the work published.  Or at least a perceived decrease, if researchers are making unpolished documents like lab notebooks freely available.

Potentially more important is the fact that open access to scientific results is likely to correlate with greater media sensationalism.  If the results of a preliminary experiment point to a certain conclusion, then the release of this information before the results are verified might lead to unjustified hype.  (How many times has the discovery of the Higgs boson been reported?)  This argues for continued control over what results get leaked to the blogosphere and to journalists.


If a research group spends five years and millions of dollars to find out that something doesn’t work, do they want to share that information with other groups?  Ideally, yes… but in the process, they may be saving time for their competitors and losing their own competitive advantage in the race for grant money.  It’s worth mentioning here the concept of open innovation, a sort of intermediate level of information-sharing that is increasing in popularity in the business world, where companies buy or license processes or inventions from other companies instead of developing everything in-house.

Open access to scientific journals seems to be something that scientists want when they’re reading papers but not when they’re publishing papers.  Some of this has to do with money.  No one wants to pay to read a paper; however, open access journals need to cover costs somehow, so they often ask authors to pay a fee to publish.  The result?  Authors don’t want to publish there.  (Another part of this is prestige: if you publish your work in an open-access journal like PLoS ONE that doesn’t judge papers based on perceived merit, does this mean that your work has less merit than that published elsewhere?)

I’m by no means trying to discourage the sharing of information — that would defeat the purpose of this blog!  I just wanted to point out a few of the most popular discussion topics I’ve seen regarding Science 2.0 and open science.

At least, these are the most popular discussion topics according to my google searches and trips down rabbit holes…

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Post by Henderson

We’ve got a busy week in store.  We’re talking about communicating science in a 2.0 world.  Heading over to the Adler Planetarium and checking out the Bailey-Salgado Project’s Sidereal Motion, and gearing up for NEIU’s S.T.E.A.M. conference this weekend.

Suffice it to say, we’re getting a fill of science communication.

Science communication, like many things, is coming into its own in a quickly changing world where technology and access to information reign.

So what’s in a name?

Well, communicating science in a 1.0 world is static.  Sure, the information is accessible.  It’s in your scholarly journals and books, it’s in the college classes and workshops.  But it’s a one-way street.  The information is there, but there is little to no interaction.  You’ll remember this scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Communicating in a 2.0 world is more dynamic.  It’s social media, it’s blogging, interactive articles in your online newspapers, and the merging of information from different specialties.  It’s presented in a way that you, as the learner, want to see it.  And if you don’t like what you’re given, you interact.  Sometimes the information changes, sometimes it doesn’t.

But changing something, in itself, is not the point of communicating in a 2.0 world.  The point is to be more socially interactive and present subject matter in a way that different types of learners can “get it.”

Sidereal Motion – Trailer from Jose Francisco Salgado on Vimeo.

Sidereal Motion is a wonderful example of communicating science 2.0.  “The Bailey-Salgado Project is an audiovisual ensemble formed in 2010 by musician and composer Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins/Babble, International Observer) and Adler Planetarium astronomer and visual artist José Francisco Salgado. They combine music with photography, video, and motion graphics to create multimedia works that have as subject the physical world.

For me, this is a boon.  As a kid, I learned a lot through personal observations using photography.  The time lapse photography that Salgado uses to explain sometimes challenging celestial concepts is just what we’re talking about when communicating in a 2.0 world.

Another great example of how to communicate science is in this video narrated by none other than Neil Degrasse Tyson.  It beautifully blends the latest in computer graphics with the best science available (reminiscent of the beginning scene of the movie Contact).

Zooming out from Earth, the video takes you on a serene journey to what we know as the known universe.

More of this needs to be done.  And it doesn’t take a big production company to do it.

Know any novel ways to get across information in a 2.0 world?  Let us know!

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

I’m wrapping up seven years of classroom teaching this week. I’m going full time into science communication and policy, so I’m not exactly getting away from education. Still, it’s the sort of thing that makes one thoughtful. And I find, when I think about my time in the classroom, that storytelling has been wound through it all.

My graduate advisor was a storyteller—her introductory psychology course had a real reputation. If the topic was problem solving, she’d have the students rolling in the aisles while she explained how she got a squirrel out of her house with a vacuum cleaner. If the topic was consciousness, we TAs would check the doors surreptitiously for visiting administrators while she talked about her own experiences with altered states. I picked up the habit myself. Most of the time, I tell funny stories: “How Professor Gordon Used Old Issues of X-Men to Improve Her Memory,” or “What Professor Gordon Did When the Cloth Ceiling of Her Junkheap Car collapsed.” But some of the most powerful stories are more serious.

At the beginning of a course, a lot of students—engineers, architects, and physicists looking to pick up an easy credit—are dubious about the whole idea of psychology as a science. It’s not really like a standard lab science, after all. Human minds are fuzzy and hard to pin down, and no one really wants to think that free will is predictable. Or maybe it’s so predictable that no science is necessary. Isn’t psychological “research” just a matter of confirming things that everyone knows intuitively?

So I tell them a story.

Imagine that you’re a student, perennially broke and looking for a chance to earn a little extra cash. You see a sign posted one day, for an experiment on memory. They’re paying a few dollars, not anything spectacular but enough to buy lunch. It will take less than an hour, so why not?

You arrive at the lab at the appointed time. The place is very posh—obviously well-funded, with thick carpets and curtains, and lots of little rooms connected by intercoms and one-way mirrors. There’s another subject there as well, signed up for the same time slot. He’s an older fellow, a little bit balding and shaky, but you chat for a few minutes while you wait, and he seems sweet and likeable.

Finally the experimenter arrives. He passes around the consent forms, and lets you know that he’s studying the effect of punishment on memory. As in many psychology experiments, “punishment” consists of electric shock—a tradition that dates back to the early behaviorists. He’s a bit short on assistants right now, so one of you is going to be the learner, who tries to memorize pairs of words and gets punished if you miss any. The other will be the teacher who reads out words for memorization, and administers the shock when necessary. The experimenter himself will be timing responses and taking notes. The two of you pick roles out of a hat, and you have to admit you’re a bit relieved when you draw the role of the teacher.

The experimenter leads the two of you into the learner’s room, where there’s a chair with electrode hook-ups. You get a sample shock yourself, at the lowest level of 15 volts. It feels a bit like touching a doorknob on a dry winter day. The older fellow gets hooked up, and you’re led into the next room, where there’s a list of words, an intercom, and the control panel for the electrode array. The panel consists of a series of switches for increasing levels of shock, ranging from the static you just experienced all the way up to 450 volts—that end is marked with a red Danger sign.

You’re ready to begin. The experimenter explains the rules: you’ll read the words in pairs, and the learner is to memorize which words go together. Every time he gets a pair wrong, you give him the next highest level of shock—presumably increasing his motivation to avoid future errors.

The first couple of pairs, the learner gets right. But he seems nervous, and he starts to make mistakes. The first couple of times aren’t too bad, but as the voltage increases he starts to grunt, then to cry out in pain. At 150 volts, he’s had enough—he tells you, over the intercom, that he wants out of the experiment. You glance back at the experimenter, busy scribbling notes.

“Keep going,” he says. “It’s important to finish the experiment.”

What do you do?

(At this point, you can picture the sea of hands in response—28 students who say they’d stop, and 2 who think it’s shocking to say they wouldn’t.)

If you do keep going, the cries of pain get worse. The learner refuses to give answers; the experimenter tells you, again and again, that the study must be completed. Finally the learner screams and goes silent. The experimenter tells you to keep going…

Some of you may recognize the Milgram shock experiments by now. If so, you know that the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter, and not receiving any actual shocks. The “teacher” is the true subject, and the question is how willing people are to harm others—simply because an authority tells them to. The answer turns out to be that they are very willing: 65% turned up the voltage all the way to the Danger sign in spite of believing that the learner was seriously injured, possibly dead.

This is not intuitive. Ask a room of people who don’t know the results, and they’ll guess that maybe 1% or fewer would obey. Not normal people. Only the rare psychopaths. Only the monsters.

Running the experiment, and learning this nonintuitive truth about humanity, is important. It helps us to be on guard against our inner monsters, and to remember that questioning authority is possible. It helps us to be better people. And that, I tell my students, is why we do science.

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Fiction may take place in high society or in the worst part of town, in the distant past or on a distant planet.  But even in the hardest science fiction, we rarely see stories that focus on actual research. The Lablit movement aims to change that.

As every scientist knows, the lab is rife with drama.  The pins-and-needles feeling of waiting for a completed statistical analysis may be a bit esoteric for most people.  But much of it is more accessible.  Will this experiment work at all?  Will it give you publishable results, or will you get scooped by that “colleague” who was so rude at the last conference?  And what about the soap opera relationships between grad students, that turn sour when the computer crashes at 3 AM?

If you’d like to find out more, here are some sites to get you started:

Lablit.com is at the center of the movement, and includes a list of examples, a discussion forum, and a few stories.

Nature did an article on the topic.

-A few examples from biology.

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Post by Henderson

It’s hard to find a better example of science in storytelling than Radiolab.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are always funny and contemporary.  After listening to any of their stories, you almost feel like you played a part in the show.

You already know that they bring you great science stories, surrounding your ears with a virtual cornucopia of audio delight.

What you may not know is that they are bringing this 3D audio experience to your eyes via the Hyper Audio Experiment.

It still has the same great audio, but it includes photos and scrolling transcripts.

Radiolabs Hyper Audio Experiment

Check out the ‘lab’s experiment with their latest episode on the topic of symmetry. They describe it as a work in progress, and are looking for feedback.

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Post by Henderson

When it comes to talking about science, things are starting to change.  Students are demanding a change in traditional teaching methods, in large part fueled by the social media revolution.

They want iPads and connectivity on demand, and so do some school districts.  They want easily accessible data with a multi-media aesthetic and they want to be able to tweet about it.

Some of the coolest examples of this are coming out in the communication of science.  This is still a work in progress, as teachers are just getting a handle on how to use social media and technology to present material.

Here are just a few examples that I found when looking up resources for our upcoming S.T.E.A.M. conference workshop.

Don’t get me started on the kid-centric aspect of the sites.  Some are games, but still some are just basic graphic presentations of the science.  Sure, kids need to learn science, but adults do too.


Hubble takes you on a trip to a black hole.  Get in the spaceship, pick the speed that will help you break through the atmosphere, and figure out how fast you need to go to get to the nearest black hole.


What was that evolution thing again?  Track a blue organism and find out how variations in phenotype and inheritance lead to evolution.


Canadian Games for Science.  Play as a tourist.


Do you know any good interactive science websites?  Let us know.

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There’s certainly no shortage of interesting news these days… it can be hard to keep up, and a lot of cool stories can get buried!  Help us out — what are some good science/technology/art/etc. stories that you’ve seen in the news recently?

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