For Scientists, Public Engagement Means Finding Their Advocacy Comfort Zone

I’m writing a series of posts on science communication and policy for Sigma Xi, the country’s leading scientific honors society.

The first installment covers how scientists think and talk about advocacy, including some social science reviews and advice from one of my old professors and a long-time Hill staffer who recently did a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.

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The March for Science is an Amazing Opportunity, Let’s Embrace It

The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.

It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.

Here are a few more thoughts:

The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.

Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. THEY ARE SO FREAKING COOL!!! Photo by @this_life

We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.

Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.

Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

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More and More Scientists are Ready for Political Action

This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.

Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. Photo by @this_life.

I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)

And then there’s the Scientists’ March on Washington, which just went viral overnight. Wow! This is really happening. I love it.

It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.

You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth. 

As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.

Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.

What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.

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D’oh! How Science Communicators Can Responsibly Deal with Mistakes

I’ve written before about what to do when a journalist gets something wrong. But what about when a researcher or an institution is the one at fault? Mistakes happen, after all, from transposed figures to inaccurate press releases to the research itself getting corrected or – oof – retracted.

In such cases, science communicators should be transparent, thorough and quick to respond. It’s the right thing to do and copping to mistakes and working with journalists to correct them can actually enhance a source’s credibility over the long haul.

Take Responsibility for Corrections and Act Quickly

As a long-time NASA media staffer and former journalist once told me, when he has bad news, he wants to be the one to tell it. I think that maxim holds true for corrections. If someone else catches a mistake and starts complaining about it to journalists via comments, emails or on Twitter, a science communicator might feel like they’re on the defensive. A failure to respond quickly can even look suspicious to journalists.

When someone finds a mistake, science communicators should let journalists know as quickly as possible so they can correct it. Check to see if news aggregators and bloggers picked up the same mistake and contact them, too. Be thorough. Don’t leave a journalist out and put them in the position of having to explain to an editor why another outlet issued a correction and they didn’t.

In some cases, a mistake might warrant a more thorough review. Perhaps a key researcher got left off the press release approval email chain and now they’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s going to take a while, it’s worth letting journalists know what’s been found so far while giving them a time by which you expect to have a fuller assessment.

It may be the case that only some of the journalists who covered a story conveyed the incorrect information. Communications staffers in damage-control mode may be tempted to just contact them and avoid having to tell other journalists who dodged the bullet that something went wrong. Don’t do it! Contact everyone who covered the story or expressed interest in it. If it looks like a journalist doesn’t need to update their story, let them know they’re probably in the clear up front: “I don’t think your reporting reflected this error or was based on it in any substantive way, but I wanted to let you know…”

If an institution blasted out a press release with an inaccuracy, they should also send a corrective note. Yes, it sucks! But they should do it anyway. Science communicators have to hold themselves to a very high standard.

This can be a messy process, for sure, but given how rapidly news spreads online and how quickly mistakes can get propagated through secondary and tertiary sources – especially partisan ones – it’s worth the effort.

Figure Out an Internal Review Process Ahead of Time

People have very different reactions when it’s time to correcting errors. It’s worth taking the time now – not when people are panicked about a potentially embarrassing or simply annoying error – to come up with a process for responding.

Save panic for the real emergencies. This is just a correction!

Assign a lead and backup in the communications team to handle corrections. Have a similar plan for how the scientific team should be engaged. Ask executives to lay out a process for when they should get a heads up and when they need to be at the table for decision-making. In short: have a plan now so the team doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out who needs to be on a conference call or an email chain in the moment.

Everyone at an institution should agree on principles of transparency, thoroughness and speed in advance of an error. When a real correction comes along, that’ll make it easier for everyone to focus on upholding those principles rather than pointing fingers.

The truth is that corrections can hurt. Some people will react with initial denial. Our brains beg us to explain away mistakes instead of copping to them. Others may want to rush to correct the record, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruined relationships with reporters. Still others may use a correction to undermine someone internally or even try to throw them under the bus to a reporter (yuck!). More commonly, a junior staffer may find a mistake that obviously came from a superior who has sway over their placement and salary, so they hesitate to bring it up.

In science communication, everyone should feel like surfacing and responsibly correcting errors is an important, if unpleasant, part of their jobs.

Be Clear About Corrections on the Web

Along with having a ready plan with your team, it’s important to have a consistent policy for issuing corrections on an organization’s website. Consider posting a correction policy for public consumption. It’s worth being transparent.

Many media outlets, of course, are grappling with the same issues. Slate was an early adopter among news sites for using the limitless publishing format of the web to make corrections not only more transparent, but also a regular weekly feature.

Slate is relatively transparent about its corrections and even compiles them in a round-up.

Institutions do themselves a disservice when they try to bury corrections. Quietly updating web copy after a mistake has been discovered is routine. Sometimes people don’t notice. Other times they screengrab the before and after and make fun of the institution on Twitter. The Internet has a long memory and journalists have copies of original press releases in their inboxes. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We can’t pretend it wasn’t.

So what to do? Annotations, strikethroughs and footnotes with anchor tags are my preferred method for issuing – and consuming – corrections. They allow the reader to see what was there originally and what changed and why. In extreme cases, where multiple corrections are required, it may be worth creating a corrected copy and an original copy to preserve readability, but for almost all other instances, these context-heavy systems are sufficient and respect the audience in a way that opaque updates do not.

What else?

I seriously hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this post, of course. But if I made an error of omission, let me know! I’d love to hear more about what works and doesn’t work when we have to – gulp – make a correction.

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Zombie Myths, like John McClane, Die Hard

Right before the Christmas break, I posted about climate scientists’ experiences combating zombie myths for Poynter. As we know, some myths seem to defy factchecking, particularly conspiracy theories. I argued that journalists (and scientists!) need to do more to illustrate the dangers of basing policymaking on misinformation:

“…fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises….If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.

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How Can Journalists and Scientists Grapple with Lies and Personal Attacks?

Journalists are making sense of our fractured media environment and the growing prevalence of outright lies and propaganda in American political discourse. There are some parallels to how scientists have been grappling with the same trends, especially on climate change.

Here are two key points to keep in mind as we think about more effective reality-based communication.

  1. There’s a greater need to be clear about our assumptions regarding why facts and expertise matter.

James Fallows at the Atlantic produced some essential reading on how journalists can handle Trumpian-level lies:

Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt.

Explaining how that assumption is being challenged – and how dangerous it is – is a job worth taking up. It’s also worth noting that this degradation of political discourse has been happening for a long time and has recently accelerated. We’re in a different place now. For journalists like Fallows – and for scientists – “facts” are still descriptions of objective reality. For political ideologues, “facts” are fluid and one’s embrace or rejection of a set of “facts” is a marker of political identity, not one’s sober assessment of reality.

As Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, told Fallows in response to his article, “There is no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts.” Their radio exchange is well worth a listen. They are using the same words to argue about entirely different cultural views on what constitute a “fact” and indeed, the nature of who serves as an arbiter of accepted truths in society.

Stepping back from these philosophical debates is important, too. They can be a rabbit hole. Facts and expertise are important because they are the basis for sound public policy choices, whether its how to manage a nuclear stockpile or warning people about the dangers of smoking. Political misinformation and lies are dangerous not just because they are wrong, but because they turn into terrible public policy choices that hurt people.

For instance, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has been clear about why he rejects climate science:

“I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”

Trump, in a more meandering way, made a similar assertion to the NYT. They don’t embrace climate change misinformation because they are enamored of it or because they hate science – they embrace lies because it justifies the policy outcomes they want. So while factchecking their outrageously wrong claims is great, we also have to remember where the public interest rests. Ignoring climate change hurts people. Failing to plan for rising seas, extreme heat waves and droughts hurts people. Lying about climate science doesn’t reduce the harm from climate change; it’s just an excuse for kicking the can down the road and letting the problem get worse.

We don’t need an argument about why Sen. Inhofe’s misguided beliefs about climate science are wrong.  We need an argument about why he isn’t protecting Oklahomans from increased climate risks.

Finally, the lies about voter fraud are perhaps even more illustrative and damning. Trump supporters now believe – thanks to lies – that millions of people, including non-citizens voted illegally. It’s worth watching this video of a CNN reporter trying to source the voter fraud claims Trump supporters have internalized. The Trump supporters don’t care. They and the reporter have entirely different views about what “facts” are in this context.

This lie and many like it will continue to be used to justify laws that rob people of their right to vote, a right mentioned more times than any other in the Constitution. If that is not a threat to democracy, I do not know what is. So journalists can factcheck these claims all they want, but it is the policy outcome based on the lie that is the most dangerous, not the mistaken beliefs.

Facts – real facts – and expertise matter. When politicians start making up their own reality, we go to very dangerous places, indeed.

 

2. There’s a greater need to explain why you do what you do.

Because scientists and journalists both value objectivity, they have a tendency to avoid talking about what drives them to do their work. Such public discussions, they think, are too personal and they would prefer pure focus on the work. Their professional norms encourage them to play the ball, not the player and to bristle at outside criticism.

But in contentious debates, failing to give audiences a sense of why you do what you do invites them to make their own assumptions, including negative ones. For researchers, audiences make bad assumptions about how scientists procure grant money. For journalists, audiences cry out with evidence of bias or favoritism. These attacks aren’t organic, of course. They are lies told by ideologues who find science and journalism politically inconvenient.

These lies must be fought with the truth. As media reporter Michael Calderone put it:

If journalists don’t engage in such discussions, they’re ceding the debate to those looking to vilify and delegitimize the press at a dangerous moment in history when soon-to-be-most powerful person in the world has already laid the groundwork for doing just that.

I’ve written previously about how scientists can do more to explain what motivates them. Perhaps journalists can consider some similar steps.

All of our old assumptions about institutional power and norms are being challenged. Everyone who care about facts – real facts – has to step up.

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Science and Politics Post-Election: Where Do We Go From Here? Lessons from Carl Sagan

 

I have been thinking these past few months of Dr. Carl Sagan. In his last interview, conducted with Charlie Rose in 1996, Dr. Sagan said the following:

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?

This was Dr. Sagan, with all his clear-eyed skepticism brought to bear on our world. But his appeal – his moral courage, really – came from his deeper, unwavering optimism for our species. These are the first two quotes from The Demon-Haunted World, his user’s guide to scientific thinking:

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Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t talk much about science during their campaigns. This was not an election based on issues. But this was the first election in U.S. history where the role of expertise itself – be it scientific, academic or security-related – actually divided the candidates.

During her acceptance speech after the primaries, Clinton said she believed in science, citing climate change, in particular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called climate change a hoax. That statement, along with Trump’s pending withdrawal of the United States from an international climate agreement, drew unprecedented criticism from more than 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Further, more than 1,200 members of the scientific community echoed these concerns in another letter, citing Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and the alacrity with which he and his running mate made discredited claims about vaccines, evolution, and the link between smoking and lung disease. They joined many other experts in making similar statements condemning Trump and praising Clinton, including Nobel Prize winners, historians, economists and nuclear launch officers.

Trump’s rise — and his narrow victory — should make us question the degree to which expertise will continue to matter in politics. We know that it does when it’s time to make policy, but on the politics, its salience is simply low and will probably remain so. Repeated warnings from experts across disciplines and across the political spectrum fell not on deaf ears, but on deeply disengaged and distracted ones. It is tempting to blame others for this problem, including politicians who abandoned their Constitutional principles to support Trump as well as media coverage that too often balanced bigotry, threats of violence, repeated falsehoods, attacks on the democratic process itself and sexual assault with email servers. But such complaints will not change anything, certainly not history.

It is therefore up to the scientific and academic community itself to become a more powerful political constituency. As Dr. Sagan once said about our planet, help will not come from somewhere else.

What lessons do we take away from this as science communicators who care about public policy? Here are a few, which broadly apply to other experts, too.

  1. While people still appreciate and respect the work that scientists do, the scientific enterprise itself is far removed from most peoples’ day-to-day experiences. We need to continue to communicate about the value research brings to people’s lives with an emphasis on memorable, accurate stories and well-tested messages, repeated often, from a variety credible sources. This must also include helping people understand why scientists do what they do, be it curiosity, a sense of service, or excitement at the prospect of finding something new.
  2. We live in increasingly cloistered information bubbles thanks to the algorithmic mirror of social media and demographic sorting. That makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread and for serial fabricators like president-elect Trump to lie without political consequence. Social scientists, science communicators, social media companies, and mainstream media fact checkers must dedicate themselves to figuring out how they can debunk and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories in the future, lest they take permanent hold as a basis for governance.
  1. We must support, protect and defend scientists at public agencies, especially federal agencies. Environmental scientists, in particular, are going to see their budgets cut and their free speech rights squashed by political appointees, especially their right to speak to journalists. Organizations such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I worked for many years, are well-positioned to do so.
  1. Scientists should engage more personally and deeply at the community level and with the stakeholders who use their scientific research. And they should explore how they can collaboratively create science that serves their communities. We must combine citizen science with scientific citizenship.
  1. More scientists should run for and win elected office. Holding scientists and expertise in high esteem was an integral part of the post-war political order in the United States. That political order is dead. Scientists can no longer rely on many of our political systems and institutions to be responsive to the weight of evidence, especially on contentious issues. Instead, scientists must earn their place at the decision-making table the same way everyone else does, by organizing and participating in our vibrant, contentious, messy democratic process. Scientists will only be listened to when they build and wield power, both on their own or through allies. This isn’t just about the small number of scientists in Congress, either; we must look to scientists to become more engaged members of their local communities, serving on boards and councils, on committees and in state legislatures.

Of course, many scientists and science communicators are already doing all this. What I am saying is that we need more. Scientists who think this is someone else’s problem need to come off the sidelines. And scientific leaders have a further responsibility to foster more leadership in our community, through mentorships, fellowship programs and the simple grace of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

Finally, we must care for each other. We need to face great difficulty with great creativity and drive. Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in all of us who have dedicated our careers to the sciences. As Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill put it last year: “Be brave. There has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.

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Update, 11/11 at 4PM: The American Physical Society just retracted a fawning statement about Trump’s win after members pushed back. Scientists and scientific organizations will have to choose between appeasement and opposition and it’s going to be about way more than funding.

In the Guardian, Jack Stilgore and Roger Pielke Jr. argue that scientists have to work with a Trump administration to “remain relevant” or risk jeopardizing “the constructive role that we should play in policy and politics.” This is a false choice. Scientists are already relevant to policymaking at all levels of government and opposing a Trump Administrations’ attempts to gut politically inconvenient federal science would be both a constructive and moral choice. Australian scientists faced a similar choice and they stood up for themselves and their colleagues, prompting a reversal of anti-climate-science policies from their new government.

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Why XKCD’s Earth Temperature Timeline is Such a Good Online Graphic

Randall Munroe of XKCD has produced another creative visual representation of climate data. I made a quick video walkthrough of what it does well, including:

  • Flipping the axis and taking advantage of a purely online data representation.
  • Defying the audience’s expectations by scrolling down to go forward in time instead of going from left to right.
  • Emphasizing just how stable our climate has been over the millennia before modern, industrially-driven climate change started dominating the system.
  • Nice integration of an important footnote.
  • Representing climate choices at the end by focusing on varying emissions pathways and how far they take us off this relatively stable path we’ve been on for so long as a species.

Update (9/13/16): This is interesting. Over at Scienceblogs.com, Greg Laden points out that many of the historic markers in the graphic fall into the trap of highlighting a story we tell ourselves about the inevitable progress of Western civilization that can be misleading. For instance, advances in agriculture and metalworking took place across multiple cultures. It’s also worth noting that some of our ancestors probably tried out agriculture and didn’t like it that much. As Laden notes, it’s still a darn good graphic, especially on the science; it’s just worth considering some of the biases we carry into these conversations, especially since the “inevitability” of burning tons of fossil fuels hangs over the climate debate quite a bit, too.

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Q+A from Water Quality Webinar: ​Using the Right Tools to Develop Effective Messages

Last month, I did a webinar with the National Water Quality Monitoring Council on how to develop effective messages in science communication, with my last post on this topic written as a companion piece. Of course, I was talking to water quality folks, so I emphasized that message development is all about “distillation,” not oversimplification.

The presentation is available on Youtube and you can download the slides here. We had a number of questions we couldn’t get to before the webinar ended, so I’ve answered them below.

Big thanks to Candice Hopkins, the NWQMC’s executive secretary and a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey for pulling it together. And hat tip to my old colleague Melissa Varga, who runs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, for connecting us.

As I told my mom, this was a really special opportunity. Her father – that is to say my grandfather – was also a hydrologist and spent his entire career with the USGS, so it’s an institution that’s close to my my heart as well as my head.

Please see my answers to the questions below.

We’ve talked about things to do – any tips on what not to do?

Story Collider’s Liz Neely put it well when she said that scientists tend to underestimate how smart their audiences are while overestimating how much specific knowledge they have about a given topic. That fundamental ability to assess where an audience is at and where they can go with you is at the heart of a lot of mistakes scientists make when we talk about things like avoiding some types of jargon, establishing baselines, and accounting for cultural differences with audiences.

Would the message structure need to be adjusted if you want to highlight a benefit to a specific congressional district rather than trying to appeal to a funder on the broader public good?

Absolutely. Legislators are parochial and for good reason; they are serving the people of a specific district and we all have what social scientists would call a “proximity bias” for our own communities. Unfortunately, gerrymandered legislative districts don’t make a lot of geographic or scientific sense, so when we’re looking at data, it can be helpful to focus on things like metro areas, water basins or county-level information to put things in a useful geographic context for policymakers. At a minimum, state-based data is something that members of Congress and their staff are always eager to see and hear about.

In any case, it’s important to be able to communicate about these things to multiple audiences. So if you’re working with a message template that has a slot for talking about the potential benefits of a project, you’d have multiple versions of that message you could slot in and out depending on the audience.

Does the advice change when talking to skeptical electeds?

Yes. If you’re dealing with a policymaker who has some friction with an agency or who distrusts scientists who study a certain topic, it’s often the case that scientists are not the people they want to hear from. Instead, you might consider partnering with a stakeholder who the elected official does trust and who can explain to them in their shared language why a scientific topic or research project might be important. It’s that tension that often has to be resolved first before we can get to the scientific information and why it matters.

Is it ever appropriate to build credentials or consensus of science into the message?

I think it’s crucial, but we often don’t do a good job doing so. One’s credentials shouldn’t come across as elitist. Where scientists went to school or how many awards they’ve received is the kind of thing we’re used to seeing on a CV, but it makes more sense to put that in the context of why a scientist became curious about something in the first place. They didn’t go to Elite University X because it was elite; they went because they were fascinated by a subject that they wanted to study it with other like-minded scientists. They went where their curiosity led them, not their desire to come across as better than somebody else (usually, of course!).

I also don’t think people understand what consensus means in science. In everyday life, it sounds like the process we go through to pick a movie to watch with our family or friends. We kind of agree on the least objectionable thing for the most number of people. Scientific consensus is broader than that, so I think courtroom terms like “weight of the evidence” are better for conveying what scientists know about things like vaccine safety and well-established climate science.

It’s also important to emphasize what the consensus is as a baseline before delving into the uncertainties a scientist is exploring in their own work. Leaping ahead too quickly to the cutting edge stuff can sometimes make it sound like scientists know less than they actually do!

Finally, when attributing statements to elite institutions, such as universities, national academies or various agency or interagency panels, it’s also helpful to emphasize the public service nature of these institutions. As taxpayers, we are supporting these scientific enterprises to inform policymaking and personal and business decision-making. It’s not scientists issuing pronouncements from on high; it’s scientists producing useful information because we all asked them to.

Your presentation about effective messaging has been great. What do you recommend to get people to adopt your perspective and increase participation? 

Thank you! Bring me in for a workshop! Or hit up the other folks I mentioned, including Randy Olson.

Bigger picture, this gets to internal persuasion within the scientific community. Despite my own enthusiasm for science communication, I’m actually okay with the fact that a lot of scientists…just don’t like communicating. That’s okay. Not everybody has to be on board the ol’ #scicomm bandwagon, but I agree that more scientists communicating is a very good thing. And I’ve also written previously about how scientists and communications staffers can do more to work effectively together.

A couple thoughts:

First, there are scientific rockstars who are great communicators in every field. They should be bringing other people up with them, whether its peers or grad students. That can include referrals for speaking opportunities, sending media requests to a peer or co-developing communications projects with earlier career researchers. In the old media world, the spotlight was limited and there was a strong incentive to defend your place in it when you succeeded. In the new media world, bringing new people into the spotlight with you makes the spotlight bigger. So the rockstars and the people around them should recognize that dynamic and help build a community of increasingly better science communicators.

Second, I’d like to see managers devote some portion of project budgets to communications. It might only be 1 percent or 5 percent – and it should be more for pressing topics with significant public interest – but until an institution puts money on the table, communications will almost always be an afterthought. My thinking on that subject also extends to grant applications. Communications plans and goals should be part of the grading process. Certainly not a huge part of it – the work must remain the work and I’d rather see great science with bad communication supported over questionable science with great communication – but communications should count. (And this is an area where I’m very open to counter-arguments and alternative structures, too.)

Finally, I’d say the biggest thing individual scientists can do is share their successes and their lessons learned with peers. We all learn from each other and the more other scientists see their peers discussing how to approach communications, they more likely they’ll be to see it as part of their work, too.

P.S. – I think there is a big generational shift underway in science as digital natives take on more leadership roles. The discussions we have about science are increasingly public and accessible – hey, Twitter! – and that is baking science communication into a lot more of the activities scientists do. So many of the conversations that used to happen just among peers are now happening with peers, on blogs, in the media, and with the public and science-engaged nerds like me in real time every day. It’s exciting, a little overwhelming at times, and very different from what many scientific institutions are used to, so we’re all adapting in real time, too.

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Developing Effective Messages in Science Communication

There are a lot of tips, methods, schools of thought and best practices for developing effective messages in science communication. I like them all. Which is to say I don’t stick to just one method when it’s time to figure out how to explain a result, concept, project or proposal. As a communications professional I tend to view them all as tools rather than rigid formulas.

Think of it as the “Bruce Lee” method of message development. Lee was well known for developing his own style of martial arts based on identifying what is effective for an individual and discarding what is not. In his mind, picking any one style was simply too rigid given all the different strengths and weaknesses an individual might have and all the different contexts in which they might use their skills.

And not that science communication is a fight, but I think those general principles apply well here. For instance, some scientists are stupendous public speakers; others are much more comfortable with email correspondence. Some scientists love extended metaphors; some loathe them. Some scientists love coming up with snappy soundbites; others like to keep things simple and clear.

A statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. Lee’s fighting style rejected adherence to any one martial art in favor of adapting other arts to one’s style and context. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. Lee’s fighting style rejected adherence to any one martial art in favor of picking what works based on one’s style and context. He was also crazy-ripped. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So here’s what I’ve taken away from the many message development systems out there and how I integrate them into my work. Importantly, this is just what I think right now. As new systems and new methods of communications evolve, I’m ready to integrate them into my approach. That said, the narrative based template describe below from scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson is incredibly powerful; it’s become the go-to for me in my day-to-day work.

Build and refine

When I approach any of these tools, my instinct is to get the basic messages down first and get them right. As university science public information officer Matt Shipman describes it, a communications staffer or journalist often needs to get to the point where they can explain it to themselves and then – huzzah! – they can explain it to other people. Even when scientists are working on their own, they should strive to get their main messages on paper first, even if they sound boring, and build and refine from there.

When we approach developing messages, we often start by spitballing one-liners, zingers and metaphors. It can be a lot of fun, but doing so can actually hold us back from thinking creatively because we revert to shooting down everything that might be construed inaccurately. This is especially true in science communication – in fact, it should be expected, darn it! – but it happens in other fields, too.

If we start with main messages instead, we can make sure the creative, memorable messages we want to develop later stay in sync with the core concepts we want to convey.

Then we need to use a little bit of the scientific method and test our messages out in the real world. A soundbite that feels right on, but doesn’t get picked up by journalists isn’t a great soundbite at all. A metaphor that leads an audience in the wrong direction has to be dropped. And that’s a good thing. Once we find messages that do work, we can use them for a lifetime.

Message Boxes and Talking Points

A message box or set of talking points is useful for several reasons, but the chief ones are practical. A good message box makes a researcher focus on the top few points they can reasonably get across to an audience. My old boss Rich Hayes also likes calling them a message “compass” because they can keep a researcher on track. We all dance around a bit when giving lectures, conducting interviews or meeting with a policymaker. A message box reminds us to hit the notes we know to be important. It also helps us avoid getting distracted or going down into the weeds at the expense of conveying what we know to be most important.

Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor and the winner of the American Geophysical Union’s ambassador award for service to the Earth science community, keeps his main messages in two important spots: on a sign above his desk so he can reference it when doing interviews and in his wallet so he can reference them wherever he’s working.

Scott Mandia’s wallet-sized message box on climate science and policy in action! (Source: UCS webinar on science communication)

Scott Mandia’s wallet-sized message box on climate science and policy in action! (Source: UCS webinar on science communication)

A message box isn’t meant to include everything one says in an interview or talk. Instead, it’s meant to highlight what is necessary to convey in an interview or talk. In this sense, creating a message box is an act of prioritization, which can be tough for scientists. They always want more context, more data, and more precision. But communications is limited. So we have to choose.

Message boxes can include sub-points, they can be modular and they can be as skinny or as detailed as the user wants. Scientists fall on a spectrum for how much or how little detail they want in a message box. Generally speaking, the more experience one has doing communication, the less one tries to include a message box. The details are usually in our heads and we can retrieve them at will; it’s the big picture messages that seem well-understood to us, but which aren’t to public audiences, that we need to remember to consistently emphasize.

Message Boxes: Getting Down to Business

A basic message template would follow along these lines:

  • Here’s what we know.
  • Here’s what’s new.
  • Here’s why it matters.

Or put in science terms:

  • The basic science.
  • The new finding.
  • The implications for scientists or society.

This template is derived from the classic A Scientist’s Guide To Talking With The Media from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Here’s an example of such a basic message template that I prepared for a workshop with public health researchers a few years ago when I was working at UCS:

BasicScienceHIVAidsCarribean

The implication, like the discussion section of a scientific paper, is the most free-wheeling part of this template. If a researcher were talking to a foundation funder, their implication might be: “That’s why we need more research funding for field studies in tourism areas.” For a scientific audience it might be: “That’s why we need to identify new protocols for collecting data in tourism areas.”

Of course, those seem like pretty straightforward main messages. Will people remember them? Or could you structure a talk around them? After developing a main message template, it’s worth thinking through how you can convey each of the messages to make them more memorable.

Here’s a punched-up version of that same message template:

BasicScienceHIVAidsCarribeanPunchedUpThese messages are functionally the same, they’re just constructed like soundbites. The first uses social math that might be helpful for a lower-48-based audience, the second builds a tiny bit of tension by reversing the statement, and the third uses parallel construction and plays off the double meaning of “hot spot” in the context of tourism and studying diseases, respectively. (My next post will offer a taxonomy of soundbites, which builds off ones Hayes and his co-author, science journalist Daniel Grossman, developed.)

A template for science-based policy

For policy-relevant science, a slightly more complex message template adds a few more elements.

  • Problem: What a project is trying to address.
  • Solution: What research suggests can address the problem.
  • Action: What steps or series of steps can flow from the studied solutions.
  • Benefits: What societal goals could be served by following these actions.

This template builds off some lessons from Christine Jahnke, who hosts excellent communications workshops and is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman.

Here’s an example of some public health research about heat exposure and climate change in low-income, high-rise apartment buildings from Jalonne White-Newsome, a remarkably talented science communicator:

JalonneWhiteNesomeBasicMessages

Note that the solution is general, but the action is specific. Many possible actions could flow from the analysis, but this was one we wanted to emphasize because people could act on it quickly and at no financial cost. Other actions included improving access to cooling centers – perhaps something to emphasize for a meeting with city planners – and reminding people to point their fans out the window to vent hot air instead of onto their bodies for temporary relief – a message one might emphasize for a one-on-one meeting with a senior.

And here’s a punched-up version:

JalonneWhiteNesomeBasicMessagesPunchedUp The first message uses people’s personal sense of time to connect back to changing climate patterns. The second uses some simple alliteration and the third paints a picture. The fourth juxtaposes the simplicity of the action with the gravity of the benefits.

When you start to come up with specifics like this, you can also see how the messages don’t necessarily have to go in this order, either. Imagine a TED-talk that opened with the benefit message: “What if a knock on your door could save your life?” Or imagine using the story of a specific floor captain as an intro. “I want to tell you about my research, but first I want to tell you about Gus…”

The variations are somewhat endless, which is kind of the point! There are no simple answers here and by consistently testing out new messages, one will find that the strongest survive.

Other message templates

The COMPASS message template is a popular one, especially among marine scientists. Sarah Myhre effectively used the organization’s template to help explain a set of papers she did about long term climate change and ocean life. The messages she developed were especially important for helping people understand that despite the dire nature of the findings that we still have a lot of societal choices to make about climate change.

Sarah Myhre's totally fleshed out message box. Whoa! (Source: Sarah Myhre via Medium. Click for the full post.)

Sarah Myhre’s totally fleshed out message box. Whoa! (Source: Sarah Myhre via Medium. Click for the full post.)

Note especially that Myhre included a lot of sub-messages in her template. This is a good example of a fully-fleshed out message box that starts with core messages and backs them up with sub-points, including ones she used for different contexts, such as discussing short-term and long-term solutions. Myhre’s message for other scientists?”  Fill out yer damn message box.” It really forces you to grapple with the specific of what you want to say.

I’ve run into a few other templates, too. They all share common features and they’re all framed slightly differently, so I think finding the right template is a matter of testing multiple ones out over time to see what works for an individual.

But what about the methods?

This is going to hurt a couple scientists…but few people outside the scientific community care about the methods scientists use. Not all of our audience members are going to be mini-scientists. They kind of know how science works, they respect scientists as experts and they really do think science is great, but they generally just don’t care about data collection, statistical analysis, computer models or lab work.

For poster sessions, methods are a must, naturally. But for public communication, they are usually secondary to what scientists know and why they think it matters. (Source: NASA / JPL)

For poster sessions, methods are a must, naturally. But for public communication, they are usually secondary to what scientists know and why they think it matters. (Source: NASA / JPL)

Are there exceptions? Sure. People who do field work have awesome stories about their methods. Sometimes we build great monuments to science like the James Webb space telescope or the Large Hardon Collider where the methods are part of the story. And sometimes methods are interesting because they’re particularly clever, novel, or relate-able. Other times methods involve the audience, especially when it comes to citizen science, so methods become a must for communication.

Additionally, when scientists find their work scrutinized in the press or by other scientists – or by interest groups or politicians – methods become part of the story, too, and scientists may even need to publicly defend them. 

But most of the time methods aren’t that interesting to outside audience. So, yes, scientists should be ready to explain them if asked, but they don’t have to prioritize them as they do with a scientific audience.

Some scientists chafe at this. After all, we know how important the methods are for actually doing good science. In that case, I sometimes ask them to think about whether or not they would ask a financial advisor, a civil engineer or a electrician to talk to them about their methods. They all have methods, after all. But thinking about this in professional terms helps us see that for most people outside our field, it’s the results we care about, not the nitty-gritty of getting to them.

A final exception to excluding methods would be talking with beat and trade reporters. They totally want to know about methods because they follow the literature closely and want to know about new and interesting trends in research. A thirty minute conversation about the ins-and-outs of the latest and greatest – or not-so-greatest – in epigenetics is quite valuable for someone who translates science to a broader audience. Similarly, methods – and their success or failure – are sometimes a big part of a story, for instance, the demise of the National Children’s Study.

Okay, okay, but what’s the story?

Randy Olson, a scientist-turned filmmaker has written an incredibly useful book about narrative communication in science. Good stories, he writes, set the scene, identify a tension and attempt to resolve it. Olson draws a number of insightful parallels between how English majors and Hollywood use story structures and how we think and talk about science.

His “ABT” template is deceptively simple and remarkably useful. I’ve compared it to the arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

ABT stands for “and, but therefore” and it under-girds the exposition, tension and resolution of a solid narrative structure. Olson uses the example of an unwieldy presentation he was working on with some coastal scientists. After some back-and-forth, they realized there was a big universal story they were trying to tell:

For 8,000 years sea level has been stable AND civilizations have been built right to the edge of the ocean. BUT for the past 150 years sea level has been rising rapidly, THEREFORE it is now time to come up with a new management plan for coastal areas.

Every other thing they were trying to communicate hung off those three thoughts. It occurred to me after reading Olson’s book that my own go-to-message templates pretty much followed the same structure.

From earlier, but with ABT annotations:

  • Here’s what we know. (Here’s a thing AND another thing AND another thing…)
  • Here’s what’s new. (BUT then we found a new thing!)
  • Here’s why it matters. (THEREFORE, we concluded…)

Similarly, the four-part message template we looked at earlier treats the problem as an “and,” the solution as a “but” and takes the “therefore” and splits it into what can be done now (action) and why it makes sense to do so (benefits).

It really is all the same story structure and I often find myself looking at other people’s main messages and thinking, okay…but where’s the story? Or in other words…where’s the ABT? 

Sometimes the idea of embracing narrative makes scientists uncomfortable. The word carries a connotation of inaccuracy because of its connection to works of fiction. But the best, most accurate science journalism also follows narrative structures. Narrative is just how humans make sense of the world and in some ways, what science does is give us better, more accurate stories to tell ourselves, over time, about how our world works. Olson goes further and argues that the current structure of a scientific paper also has narrative roots, few of which are taught in grad school, unless one studies the history of science itself.

At the same time, people who disparage science constantly abuse narrative to put out inaccurate information. When I reviewed Olson’s’ book last year, I recalled that I’d often pointed to the vaccine “debate” as one in which a misleading narrative did a lot of damage. For instance, here’s my attempt at what an ABT from an anti-vaccine advocate like Jenny McCarthy might look like, based on an interview she did with CNN:

Vaccines are widely administered AND no one questions them, BUT when my child received vaccines he became autistic, THEREFORE we need to be suspicious of vaccines.

It’s a dangerously inaccurate story, but it’s also a memorable one for some parents. Bummer!

Luckily, there are a lot of scientists who are more than willing and able to push back against these misleading narratives. And the good news is that vaccination rates remain high. But beating back a misleading narrative requires telling accurate stories, too. Trying to fight narrative armed only with “and, and, and” structured presentations of the facts is, in Olson’s telling, like trying to swim upstream against a too-strong current.

Paul Offit, a pediatrician who has invested considerable time and effort debunking misinformation about vaccines, has a go-to story he uses to explain how easily we can be misled. I asked Olson to watch an Offit interview I like to use for media workshops and translate his story into an “ABT.”

Here’s a slightly tweaked version of what he came up with:

My wife was getting ready to give a child a vaccine AND as she was pulling the shot into the syringe the child had a seizure BUT if the child’s seizure had come after the shot, it would have been very difficult to convince the parents they weren’t connected THEREFORE we can’t trust anecdotes, we have to trust and the scientific method.

Is that more complex than Jenny McCarthy’s story? Sure. But it’s also true. And it’s coming from a credible source. I showed this interview to a few public health researchers once and one of them told us that she’s heard Offit tell that story many, many, many times. That made me smile. As marketers will tell you, by the time you’re tired of repeating your message, it’s probably just starting to sink in. Clearly, Offit had found an effective story that painted a memorable narrative for his audience and one that helped illustrate his broader message: please, parents, trust the science.

As Olson emphasizes throughout his workshops, this isn’t an easy fix or just another tool to get good at storytelling – nor is it an add-on to good communication –  it’s fundamental to figuring out effective, sticky messages that work for one’s audience.

Okay, but how does it make you feel?

My favorite question to ask scientists usually comes after we’ve figured out a few basic messages we want to convey: how does this make you feel?

When we consider this question, we allow ourselves to turn off our logical minds for a second and get to why we actually care about what we’re working on in the first place.

Like seriously answering a child who responds to every statement with “Why?” asking ourselves how we really feel about a topic eventually gets us to some fundamentals about why we do science communication in the first place: curiosity, excitement, worry, wonder, public service, the desire to heal pain, to create something new, or you know…

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

This also brings up a corollary question: what do we want our audience to feel? Hopefully, not boredom! We might want them to feel inspired, generous, angry or curious, too. I often ask myself this question in the context of social media sharing; why do I share the things I share online? What emotional trigger did a story hit for me that makes me want to tweet about it, comment on it or post it on Facebook? And what does posting that say about me to the people who follow me?

In practice, these are split-second decisions we make nearly every day. But at the level of message development, these questions are crucial for considering how and why people might share something online or in person.

I’ve also written before about how improv rules are useful for creative activities like message development or brainstorming new communications projects. If we’re clear that we’re just riffing and nothing is heading out the door without approval, it’s easier to say “yes” to the parts of the ideas we like, while savings the “nos” for later. Truly, when it comes to translating messages into soundbites, metaphors, compelling visuals or stories, we have to stop nitpicking to think creatively.

Create scaleable messages

I had an old rule that I liked to follow about main messages: stick to three and have no more than five. They can be backed up by sub-points, but three is usually as many as you want for a short media interview and a fourth message is a bonus.

As the communications landscape has changed, I’ve focused instead on another way of framing the question: what’s the one thing you absolutely want to say in an interview or with a specific audience? If you truly only had just 20 seconds to get your message across, what would it be? And what would you just beat yourself up over if you forgot to mention? Okay, now what else would you convey?

This suggests a different way of coming up with main messages, which is to prioritize them even more scrupulously. Such are the cognitive demands the modern communications environment places on us that sometimes we really only do have the chance to convey one message with a given audience. (This is another reason Olson’s ABT is so useful, by the way – it produces a short, standalone complete sentence.)

These questions are also useful because they help us think through how we can convey information at different timescales. My old colleague Matt Heid, who also blogs about outdoor gear and adventuring, often asked me what the 1 second, 10 second and 1 minute version of a message could be. That’s a great set of filters for thinking about how we share and consume information online, especially since it’s our attention which remains limited and distracted. One could similarly think about a 1 second headline message, a 10 second headline plus lead paragraph message, and a 1 minute and more message for people who are more engaged with the content one produces.

These filters work well in other contexts, too, depending on your audience. A good email needs an effective 1-second subject line. Trying to talk to a speaker at a packed conference after their session might be just a 10 second encounter. Make it count.

These attention span limits scale up, too. Another colleague, environmental engineer and science policy wonk Gretchen Goldman, produces briefing books to accompany new research. They include a quick rundown of top messages as well as an expanded version with sub-points to inform longer interviews or talks. Beyond that, one is often at the point of simply saying, “Thanks for your interest. Here’s an executive summary and the full paper for your reading pleasure! Woohoo!”

Messages that Don’t Work Are Not the Audience’s Fault

One final point: I wish these messages could all be more complex. I wish education were better, that critical thinking courses were a prerequisite in every public and private school, that people read more books, and that the political system did more to reward policymakers who rely on scientific expertise. I think everyone reading this blog feels the same way.

But that’s no excuse to throw our hands up and bemoan how hard it is to come up with messages that work. It just means we need to be more creative, more adaptable and more in tune with how people consume information. It also means being aware of our own biases; the messages that feel right for our fellow nerds can carry cultural baggage that make them duds or that backfire with other audiences.

The fun part of science communication, the challenging part, and the part that produces real moments of connection with our fellow citizens…those are the parts we remember. And those are the parts worth striving for and sharing with our colleagues, too.

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