Category Archives for Science communication

What Scientists and Science Communicators Should Consider Before an Interview

This was originally written as part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. You can check out all the installments in a pay-what-you-can ebook. And, of course, there’s more to learn at the online course.

Science communicators tend to focus on the end-products of journalism: the writing, audio and video that audiences see. But a significant portion of the work that goes into informing and contributing to a good story takes place before an interview happens. Here are some considerations for what scientists can do when a journalist first reaches out to them.

Set a time

When a journalist calls, scientists will often pick up the phone and just start talking. That can be fine for journalists they know and with whom they’ve worked before, but it’s usually better to gather one’s thoughts first and think through the most important messages to convey in response to a specific request.

In response to a request, it’s fair to ask journalists what they’re working on, what kind of angle they’re interested in on a given story, what they need from a scientist, and what their deadline is like. When a journalist reaches out – even if they’re on a tight deadline – it’s perfectly fine to arrange a time to talk later, even if it’s literally just a few minutes in the future. Scheduling interviews can also help media work feel more like part of one’s job as a publicly facing researcher and less like an interruption or distraction.

Journalists also understand that their sources are busy and are happy to be flexible with scheduling, at least within the confines of their deadline. But if a source has to put them off for too long, they may wind up going with someone else. Journalism is a fast-paced business and reporters like sources who go out of their way to make themselves available, especially when they’re feeling crunched.

Set a time limit

Scientists have a lot of knowledge to share, so it’s quite easy for them to start talking about a lot of different related topics during an interview. That can lead to miscommunication, usually in the form of a story quoting a scientist in a way that strikes them as out-of-context.

One simple thing scientists can do to bring a little more focus to their interviews is to set a time limit for them. A quick reaction quote to some breaking news might take just a few minutes, for instance, while a discussion about a new paper could take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on the type of story the journalist is doing and the level of depth a scientist thinks is required for a robust response. Those time limits can apply to conversations as well as how long a scientist spends crafting an email response to questions.

This is also a straightforward way to address a complaint I often hear from scientists: that working with the media is simply too time-consuming. It certainly can be, but that doesn’t have to be the case. And of course, time limits are just guideposts. If a journalist has more important questions to ask, it’s fine to amend a time limit mid-interview. 

Learn more about a journalist’s work

It’s worth taking time to review a few recent stories from a journalist to get a sense of how they or their outlet approach the topic at hand. The quality of journalism on a given topic – like the quality of science! – can vary widely, as we all know. It’s a mistake to lump all journalists and news outlets together as “the media,” just as it’s a mistake to lump all the worlds scientists together as a monolithic profession.

After some searching, a scientist or public information officer may discover that a journalist does excellent in-depth reporting on related fields and is new to the one they’re asking about. Or they may see that an outlet is focused on 500-word briefs about new findings, with a special focus on news-you-can-use. Or they may see warning flags from an outlet that puts a sensationalist spin on a topic that’s perceived as controversial.

Beyond Google, looking at a journalist’s Twitter feed and LinkedIn profile can also give a scientist or public information officer a sense of the kind of work they’ve done before and what they’ve been paying attention to recently: do they lean more toward science writing, local beat reporting, or policy writing for instance? And do they have a scientific background? These social networks also let you know who you have in common, including other scientists and other journalists, which can often serve as a quick proxy for credibility and knowledge about a given topic.

These are all important pieces of context to know for ensuring that scientists give journalists the type of information they need for the story at hand. When scientists neglect to match their message – and it’s level of depth, precision and complexity – to the audience or media outlet at hand, they run a higher risk of being misquoted or misunderstood.

It’s also the best way for scientists to avoid playing into agenda-driven reporting from partisan or ideological media sources, especially as new outlets proliferate. It’s perfectly fine to refer such outlets to other sources who might be more amenable to mixing it up, whether that’s other scientists or advocacy organizations that work on a given topic. Or a scientist may opt to do an interview, anyway, knowing that they’re doing so with open eyes.

Since pretty much everything in the media is online now, it’s easy to spend a lot of time on this step. At a minimum, even if I’m slammed and the reporter is on a very tight deadline, I like to read at least a few recent articles a journalist has written if I’m not already familiar with their work. I also like to search news sites for stories about the topic at hand and – again, at a minimum – scan the headlines and lead paragraphs to get a big-picture sense of the approach the outlet takes.

Understand where journalists are in their process

It’s important for scientists to match their depth of interaction with a reporter’s needs. Generally speaking, the longer the lead time a journalist is working with, the more flexibility they’ll have in considering new angles for their work and the more time they’ll have to interact with scientists.

If a journalist is looking for a reaction quote on deadline, they might just need a few minutes of a scientist’s time. At this point, journalists might have most of their story done, so they’re simply not going to be open to taking on an entirely new angle or sub-topic in that moment.

A journalist working with a longer lead-time might feel more open to different frames for thinking about a given issue. Maybe they’ll start off interested in a particular endangered species, for instance, but then a scientist tells them that the critter’s fate is best understood in the context of competition among different land management agencies in the region. In that case, the reporter may start thinking about the species as a hook for a broader story rather than the story in and of itself.

And on the other end of the spectrum, a journalist might be embarking on a multi-month research project or casting about for new stories entirely. In these moments, journalists are like vacuums for perspectives, information and data. This is when scientists and public information officers have full license to bombard journalists with entirely too much information. It’s also at this point that they might consider collaborations that can help bring data and research to life, especially if a journalist is doing original analysis.

Tailoring messages to different needs and knowledge levels

At a science communication meeting, The Story Collider’s Liz Neely shared something that will stick with me for a long old time: scientists tend to overestimate audiences’ specific knowledge and underestimate their general intelligence.

This often holds for interactions scientists have with journalists, too. That dynamic can lead scientists to over-prepare for interviews, assembling data, analysis and citations a journalist doesn’t need, instead of stepping back and identifying effective explanatory models for a journalist and their audience instead.

For instance, a political beat reporter looking for a quick fact-check of a claim about vaccination rates making the rounds in a state legislature isn’t necessarily going to be interested in new survey methods that help elucidate or debunk that claim. They usually just need to know if a statement is scientifically defensible or not and a brief explanation as to why.

Such journalists might cover dozens of different topics in a given year, or more, which means that it’s an exception for them to be able to go deep into a particular area of scientific research. Scientists will bemoan those circumstances, for sure, and I do, too, but science is just part of the bigger picture in those cases. (Further, no one should underestimate the level of journalistic expertise it takes to report on a legislative body.)

The same sort of covering-lots-of-things dynamics often play out for business, general assignment and other non-science beat reporters who only occasionally find themselves needing some help from researchers. For those media interactions, journalists are usually looking for scientists to give them the top things they need to know about a topic. They’re placing their trust in scientists and scientific institutions to be credible and to steer them in the right direction.

Of course, science beat reporters are much better positioned to tackle topics in-depth. They’ve built up their own expertise over the years and the nature of their jobs means they often know more about what’s going on in a broad field of research than many individual scientists do. In those cases, scientists shouldn’t be afraid to totally nerd out.

Additionally, getting to work with a science beat reporter at a major news outlet is an opportunity a researcher should relish. Those journalists have a wide reach with the the public and their work also helps non-beat journalists understand what’s important in a given field.

At the same time, journalists (and public information officers) should feel free to tell scientists what level of depth they’re looking for when setting up an interview, too: undergrad, grad school or PhD level, for instance, are good short-hands.

Consider the impact of other sources

It’s useful for scientists to consider who else a journalist has talked to when compiling their story. Have they interviewed a few advocates who tend to overstate risks associated with an environmental pollutant? Or perhaps they’ve talked to a scientific peer who uses a very different approach for studying the same topic? Those early interviews can color the assumptions journalists go into later interviews with, even as they work to sort through claims and counter-claims.

Sometimes journalists feel like discussing other sources is a bit too much like tipping their hands. That’s fair. They can usually still describe what they’ve heard so far, so a scientist source has a better sense of where they’re at in their story.

Journalists can put these questions and similar ones back on scientists, too. For instance, the AP’s Seth Borenstein likes to ask researchers if they can name peers who disagree with them and whose opinions they respect. That’s a helpful way for him to gauge his source’s credibility, too, as well as where the fault lines are in a scientific community on a given subject.

Staying open to new things

Finally, I strongly encourage scientists to be open to requests from new outlets and new writers. We’re all trying to figure out how to best convey scientific information in a rapidly changing media environment. New formats are always worth experimenting with, too. I had no idea when I started in this field that I’d one day be excited about scientists doing “Ask Me Anythings” for a forum full of intelligent strangers on Reddit, for instance.

As with the science, the worst thing that usually happens when someone experiments is a null result: in media terms that means no one notices. And the best outcome is figuring out a new way to communicate our work or a way to reach a new audience.

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Best Practices for Building Trust Between Scientists and Communications Staff

What you’re getting into: 1,200 words or about a six minute read. A video version of this lecture is available on Youtube.

A lot of advice in science communication seems straightforward. But it’s also open to interpretation – and misinterpretation – by scientists and communications staff alike. So it’s incredibly important for scientists and communicators to feel like they’re on the same team. That means being clear about our goals, our audiences and our roles in a given project. In short, it’s about trust, and it’s worth taking the time to build it.

For scientists, reputation rules

Science communication stills feels risky for a lot of researchers. In many ways, public information officers and other communicators are asking scientists to put their hard-earned professional reputations in their non-expert hands. That’s a very heavy thing to ask a scientist to do. So it’s not surprising that researchers often respond to ideas from communications staffers with reflexive skepticism. Scientists are constantly weighing what their peers – i.e. their toughest critics – will think about the communications work they do.

Indeed, when communications staffers march into a conference room brimming with excitement, here’s what I think scientists often hear.

What communications staff say What scientists can think
We’re excited! This could get a lot of attention. Be careful! This could get a lot of attention.
We have a lot of new ideas for our communications work. Here’s a new batch of untested, potentially risky ideas. Fire at will!
We think these new messages will resonate with our audiences. The perfectly accurate messages you’ve been using are total duds.
We want to produce a suite of new content for our audiences. We’ll soon be driving you to distraction with requests for review.

On the flip side, scientists’ skeptical reactions and instinctual critical thinking can come across as overly-negative for communication staffers:

What scientists say What communications staff can think
We need to be careful. This could easily lead to a lot of inaccuracies. They don’t trust us to do this accurately.
This doesn’t include important caveats. We’ll get roasted. Wow. They think we’d simplify things to the point of embarrassment.
What if [unlikely bad outcome] happens? They don’t think we can plan effectively or think on our feet.
We tried that before and it didn’t work. These scientists aren’t open to anything new!

Of course, communicators aren’t actually out to flummox scientists. And scientists aren’t out to be sticks in the mud or make communicators feel bad about doing their jobs. But if communicators and researchers aren’t clear about their goals and audiences, it’s very easy for them to talk past one another.

What to do? I can think of five approaches I’ve found useful in my career.

Always consider other scientists as a key audience

Communications staffers have to remember that scientists’ peers are their most important audience. Communications campaigns often focus on big gets like the New York Times or regional TV or radio programs. But communicators shouldn’t forget trade and specialty press in researchers’ fields. As science communicator Matthew Shipman puts it, those audiences might be small, but for a scientist, everyone in them matters.

Further, even if a communications project isn’t targeting other scientists at all, communications staffers should explicitly discuss how other scientists might react to the project. That’s often the driving force behind hesitancy in science communication, for reasons that are both good and bad. Nobody wants to make mistakes, but science is also a peculiarly hierarchical profession in which it can be risky to rock the boat, challenge the status quo and try new things.

Tackle the negative stuff first

Early in communications planning or idea vetting, I like to ask scientists, “What’s the most prevalent misinformation you deal with in your field?” and “What are the outcomes we absolutely want to avoid?” That helps ground the conversation in a shared understanding of what we don’t want to do, which can be a big time saver down the road.

For instance, scientists who work on detecting exoplanets are often wary of suggestions that the worlds they’re discovering could be colonized. It’s such a speculative, sci-fi topic that it can easily distract audiences from the here-and-now work they’re doing to advance our understanding of astronomy. Of course, that idea is a natural hook for communicators to think about because it’s a great way to capture people’s imagination. But for scientists, it quickly devolves into a misleading frame that they’d like to move on from as quickly as possible or avoid all together.

Be clear about process, especially right of last-review

Scientists should always enjoy right-of-last-review on materials, not only to ensure accuracy, but also to have some simple peace of mind. Everyone who works in communications knows how easy it is for inaccuracies to creep into the editing process, especially when multiple people are involved. When scientists know that they’re the last set of eyes on public materials, it creates a final check to ensure accuracy.

Right-of-last-review can also give scientists more room to think creatively earlier in the process. They don’t have to worry that a rhetorical flourish or risky idea now will turn into something inaccurate later when the project is in someone else’s hands.

Use improv rules when it’s time to brainstorm

Scientists are great at shooting things down. It’s a wonderful skill for peer review. But it can be a bummer for communicators when it’s time to come up with exciting new ideas. One helpful way to approach creative conversations is to adopt improv rules. Make it clear that nothing said in the room will go into public materials unless vetted. Also make it clear that it’s a time to respond to ideas with “yes, and…” statements rather than “no, but…” ones.

I’m always pleased when scientists adopt these ground rules, drop their defenses and let the ideas and silly riffs flow. And I always get a chuckle out of how unnaturally it comes to all of us who work in science communication! We’re so sensitive to accuracy, that it’s easy to miss opportunities like NASA’s guide to cooking a turkey using space gear, the CDC’s super-practical disaster preparedness advice for a zombie apocalypse or the graceful elegance of a glowing dinosaur who helps us track auroras. Like good art, these projects can look deceptively easy to come up with from the outside, but they all resulted from people giving themselves permission to do something different and doing the hard, detailed work it takes to bring these ideas to life.

Buddy up

Finally, if institutions have the resources and are doing big communications campaigns, I strongly recommend having a communications staffer and a scientist tag-team a project. “Co-managing” can seem like an inefficient use of time at first blush, but for science communication, it can work wonders.

Over time, a scientist will develop a deeper sense of what communicators and their audiences need.  A communicator, meanwhile, will become well-versed in the nuances of a given scientific topic.

What other ideas do you have for helping scientists and communications staff work more effectively together?

(Homepage image via Wikipedia)

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Constructively dealing with trolls in science communication

Update (4/6/16): This has quickly turned into the most popular post on the site; it’s been so nice to hear from folks who have found it useful! If you have a minute after you’ve finished reading, please check out my other guides (and a list of pending topics). You can also sign up for my newsletter here

 What you’re getting into: a 3000 word guide to dealing with trolls in science communication, roughly a 10-minute read.

Trolls suck. They have a direct psychological impact on the people they target – from annoyance and vexation to frustration and anger. And they can make constructive online discussions on platforms like Twitter and Facebook nearly impossible. But dealing with trolls can be straightforward. Indeed, most public relations advice on trolling is consistent across industries and across topics: don’t feed the trolls, keep a level head, respond to more serious trolling on one’s own terms, and go back to dealing with reasonable people.

The advice is not much different in science communication, but trolls do have a unique impact in this particular field. First, trolls are irrational. But science-minded people are not. We tend to operate from the assumption that everyone else can and should act as rationally as we do. That’s a mistake, especially with trolls. Second, trolls attack people’s reputations and integrity in a way that is quite out of bounds in normal science-related discourse. These circumstances can feel so strange that scientists and science communicators often feel an urge to respond to trolls that would never occur to actors, musicians or other public figures who are targeted by them.

One of XKCD's best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

One of XKCD’s best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

Unfortunately, trolls are legion in some areas of science communication – especially climate, biotech and vaccines. And I’m honestly surprised to see scientists, science communicators and science journalists spend so much time interacting with and thinking and talking about their trolls.

The truth is that trolls are just bullies. They usually only talk to each other and no one outside their circles pays attention to what they have to say. But there are exceptions and it’s worth understanding why people troll and how scientists, science communicators, and even some science journalists who are targeted by trolls can effectively – and constructively – respond.

Recognizing trolls

Trolling had a slightly different meaning in the old, pre-digital-native Internet, but nowadays it usually means someone who posts nasty things online with the intent of provoking a reaction, usually emotional, from their targets.

Ideologues will often use trolling or troll-like tactics to target individuals with whom they disagree, including scientists, science communicators and journalists. They threaten people, call them names, twist their words, accuse them of believing things they don’t believe and sometimes even make mean memes about them if they’ve learned how to use a graphics program.

If someone works on an issue that gets trolled a lot, it’s easy to assume that any criticism or questioning of one’s work is coming from an unreachable troll. Most of the time that’s exactly the case: the only people motivated enough to complain are people who already have unshakable opinions.

There are exceptions, though. Sometimes, well-meaning critics will come along who simply aren’t aware that they’re stepping on well-trodden turf. Similarly, people who have been exposed to inaccurate and mean-spirited messages on a given topic may innocently make a point or ask a question not knowing that it comes across as trolling. 

The good news is that there are still many people who can engage in spirited, but civil disagreements, including online, without resorting to troll-like tactics. So it’s important not to assume that all critics or even all sources of scrutiny are trolling.

If someone is ever wondering about whether or not they’re being trolled, trolls will usually out themselves quickly, within just one to two interactions, in my experience. The hallmarks of trolling on science-related issues include:

  • Gish Galloping or creating straw men instead of responding to the points a target makes
  • Insisting they know what a target really means instead of taking responses at face value
  • Posing an endless series of questions to create more grist for trolling
  • A seeming inability to acknowledge that other people may have different, valid opinions
  • Attempts to score points with a perceived audience rather than engage in direct dialogue
  • Taking a target’s statements out of context by twisting single words and short phrases
  • Failing to cite sources or citing sources that don’t back up claims
  • Focusing on criticism and complaints to the exclusion of solutions
  • Quickly devolving into ad hominem arguments

Emotional responses to trolling

When a stranger insults us online, it can still feel very personal despite the fact that that person doesn’t know us. Our first instinct when trolled is to defend ourselves and to assert our own honesty, integrity or rationality. But the decision to troll actually says a lot more about the troll than it does about their target.

Consider the reality of the situation. Someone is sitting on one other end of an Internet connection “yelling” at someone else through their keyboard.

Why are they doing this? Usually it’s because they’re angry. Their political beliefs are so strong that they feel justified going after anyone they see as opposed to them. Or maybe they feel helpless and want to use social media to lash out at people they perceive as more powerful than they are. Some studies have found that trolls are psychologically much meaner than the average person, too, exhibiting traits like sadism and psychopathy, leading them to revel in the mischief they can create online.


How most trolls feel on the inside.

Before someone reacts to a troll, if at all, they should consider what the troll wants a target to feel so they can better control their own reactions:

Embarrassment and shame – Trolls want their targets to think they are getting publicly shamed by a wide and influential audience. And social media platforms, especially Twitter, can make it seem like more people are paying attention to trolls than they actually are. Further, trolls will often tag or cc people they see as having influence over their targets, including institutions, peers, supervisors, and other powerful figures. That can seem daunting to a target, but it’s actually an indication that a troll is just flailing around to provoke any kind of reaction they can muster. Indeed, when we see other people getting trolled, we tend not to care that much and that’s the same way other people feel when they see us getting trolled. Trolls have a lot less power than we give them credit for.

Worry – Trolls want their targets to feel hesitant to speak and write about their work. By creating a negative and nasty environment around a given topic, trolls hope to poison the well to the point where they are the only ones left drinking from it.

Anger – Trolls really love pissing people off. It makes them feel powerful – they got under someone’s skin! – and angry responses give trolls another round of grist to mill for more trolling.

How should targets feel instead?

Pride –  Trolls target people who they think have more power and influence than they do. If you’re getting trolled, you’re probably having an impact.

Amusement – Most troll arguments are pretty silly. Treating them seriously often gives them far more credence than they deserve. People who are targeted by trolls should imagine how they would react if they saw a tough-as-nails peer being targeted in the same way. Might they find it ridiculous and blow it off? Or even make fun of it?

Sympathy, empathy and grace – Trolling is honestly pretty pathetic behavior. As with adolescent bullies, it’s worth considering what sort of pain and anger is behind someone’s trolling. There’s surely very little one can do from afar to ease a troll’s suffering, but consider this: interacting with a troll can be unhealthy for the troll, too, because it encourages them to keep trolling, feeding into whatever negative emotion is causing them to lash out on the Internet in the first place.

Does anyone care? Trolls and their insular audiences

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are built to make us think that everything happening on social media is super-duper important. (Notification! You’ve got a dozen favorites! Bing bing bing!) But just because something is on social media doesn’t mean that anyone cares, is paying attention or will even remember it seven seconds from now. The same principles largely extend to email, though that medium is more private.



People who are targeted by trolls should ask themselves: Are other people liking, retweeting or sharing what the troll is posting? If they are, do I care what those people think? How many followers do the trolls have? Are they just following each other? How in the weeds would someone have to go to even follow what the trolls are talking about?

Most of the time, trolls on science-related topics are part of a loose, insular network of the same old folks. Their attacks are like a rolling bar fight that just keeps spilling over into new venues. And even when they succeed in getting short bursts of wider attention for their antics – for example, when a few racist idiots “boycotted” Star Wars – nobody remembers just a few days later.

When trolls actually do matter

Every once in awhile, trolls can leverage their online pestering into something more serious, opening the door to media coverage or attention from policymakers. That’s usually the point at which a target should consider some sort of robust, on-the-record response. Why then? Because it’s the threshold at which other people in one’s profession might start to pay attention and think that something might be amiss. It’s also the point at which trolls might affect the Google search results for a target’s name, especially if they don’t have much of an established Internet footprint already. Indeed, this is the one major long-term consequence victims of trolling campaigns have to deal with, as British journalist Jon Ronson has chronicled.

Another case is corporate and front-group-backed trolling, which is usually used to target public interest scientists and journalists. In those cases, it can be hard to differentiate between negative, grassroots-level troll sentiment and professional trolls who stoke that sentiment. Regardless, it’s worth calling out if it looks like an attempt by industry groups to warp public debates.

Finally, trolling doesn’t just happen with strangers on Twitter. It also happens in academia and in media when individuals and institutions violate professional norms by attacking people through innuendo, mischaracterizations, threats, lies and personal attacks.

Scaled responses to trolling

Responding to trolls can be straightforward and should be tailored to their persistence level and a target’s stomach for engaging.

Ignore: As with bullies, the best way to respond to a troll is to ignore them. It tells the troll they have no power or influence over their target and most of them will quickly move back under their bridge.

Block buttons exist for a reason: The other simple response to trolls is to block them. No, seriously, block them. Blocking isn’t censorship or an admission of defeat – it’s simply a filter, in the same way we install ad blockers on browsers or choose not to tune into shows we don’t like. It’s so disappointing when I see scientists and other reasonable professionals waste their time responding to trolls. Surely, we all have better things to do. Similarly, targets can auto-archive emails from trolls, report them for spam, and otherwise close off the communications channels trolls use to target them.

Minimize responses Arguing with a troll is like mud wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Trolls thrive off provoking people, so ignoring them is usually the best way to get them to move on.

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! Oink oink!

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! (Also, to be fair to the pigs,this is actually not fun for them. It’s hard to find a picture of a pig that looks happy in this situation! Picture links back to source; Post-Crescent via USA Today.)

If you absolutely must respond to a troll, just make it a one-and-done:

  • “Hey – That’s not what I meant, but thanks for stopping by..”
  • “That’s certainly a perspective. Thanks for sharing.”
  • “I’ve heard that before. Here’s a link…”
  • “Haha. Good one.”
  • “Interesting. Thanks.”
  • “Hmmm.”

Imagine reading these messages from the troll’s perspective. What are they going to do with that? Usually nothing because they’re being denied the emotional response they want. Of course, some trolls will take anything a target writes even a “hmmm” and try to twist it. In that case, if you have to respond, just send them an on-point link with no additional commentary. Trolls don’t actually read links – that would require genuine curiosity – and they don’t trust their perceived audience to read links either, so it’s usually a conversation-ender.

One link to rule them all: If a target is persistently trolled by one person or on a specific point, they should create a single link online that they control where they can respond. For instance, several scientists created a helpful FAQ on when their paleoclimate research was attacked. Similarly, check out Frank Ackerman’s responses to Richard Tol, a notoriously nasty economist who publicly attacks other academics with whom he disagrees.

These one-link resources ensure that targets are able to respond on their own terms and it spares them from having to play whack-a-mole in multiple venues to knock down bad claims. It also creates a link of record that a target can share with reasonable people, including journalists, in response to troll attacks in other venues. 

Further, if a troll responds on a site a target controls, the target can actually debunk the troll’s points one-by-one, such as through embedded commentary. Doing so destroys a troll’s ability to obfuscate and Gish Gallop. Finally, such resources are also useful for exposing things a troll might be doing privately, such as emailing a target’s supervisor or spreading false information about them in person.

Brush your shoulders off, do something constructive instead

Trolls are depressing as hell. And kind of weird. Unfortunately, when trolls succeed, they drag other people down to their level.

It’s not only wrong but simply counterproductive to let trolls influence people’s actions, beliefs, or the frames with which they approach issues. For instance, I was once working with a peer on an online science communication presentation. She was worried about what an academic blogger might say in response to our event since the blogger had targeted her for criticism before. As we discussed the pros and cons of going ahead with the presentation, I realized that there are two types of people who do public communication around science: constructive people and destructive people.

We were trying to do something constructive for an audience of scientists eager to learn about communication. This blogger was attempting to do something destructive instead, tearing other people down in the service of his agenda. We went ahead with the presentation and it was very successful.

Effective science communication: 1 Troll: 0.

So when I hear scientists and science communicators talking about their trolls, I always wonder: what the heck would they be talking about instead if not for these trolly trolly trolls? Probably science! Or they’d be talking to other people who have their ears and eyes open.

I’d like to see science communicators find way to respond to trolls constructively. That largely requires recognizing that we can’t do anything to change the trolls themselves. They’re just out there trolling. Instead, I think we should use trolling as a trigger to do something constructive.

Consider this…What if every time a scientist or science communicator were trolled they:

  • Reached out to an old colleague they haven’t heard from in a while.
  • Posted something interesting about their field on social media.
  • Sent a journalist a note about forthcoming research.
  • Emailed their scientific society to ask about upcoming public outreach opportunities.
  • Went for a nice walk outside.

All of these are way better uses of our time than worrying about the trolls. (Also see a few more ideas below, including my inspiration for the above response.)

It’s like Taylor Swift says: haters gonna hate. You just have to shake it off.

Yes, I have cited Taylor Swift at a scientific conference.

A big note on gender

I’m from New Jersey. And my friends once gave me a robot-related nickname. So it’s probably a little bit easier for me to let trolling roll of my back than it is for other folks.

I’m also a dude. And I hope it’s fair to say that our society generally raises women to care more about other people’s opinions, including strangers, and puts the burden on women to make other people around them feel happy. As a result, it’s been my experience that men are more likely to blame trolls for trolling while women are much more likely to wonder what they could have done differently to avoid getting trolled. At the same time, trolling behavior directed at women is also a lot nastier than trolling behavior directed at men. That’s because sexist-bro dude-trolls feel threatened when they see women in positions of power, including in journalism, communications and science.

These trolling behaviors are closely related to sexual harassment, too. Harassers should obviously face scrutiny and punishment and it’s good to see scientific institutions finally,  haltingly start to deal with endemic sexual harassment. But when such harassment takes place online and is anonymous, it’s hard for women who are targeted by it – and other people who see it – to know what to do beyond reporting it as abusive behavior.

That’s why I’m so grateful to have read about an idea from biology student and Wikipedian Emily Temple-Wood. She creates a new woman-in-science Wikipedia entry when she faces online harassment. What a stupendously great way to respond! I love it. (And that’s exactly what got me thinking about other proactive ways to respond to trolls, as described above.)

You can contribute to the project here. I’ve done so a few times now in response to sexist comments I’ve seen directed at female peers. It feels great to be able to respond to something depressing and destructive and turn it into something awesome and constructive instead. Woohoo!

I’d strongly encourage others to contribute to this project or ones like it any time they see someone getting trolled, but especially when they see sexist trolling.

Always be proactive

Well, that was a long discussion about trolls, wasn’t it? I’m glad you made it this far and I hope this was useful. If there’s a TL;DR for this post it’s this: never let the trolls drag you down and always be proactive with your public communication.

Update (4/18/16 ): This post has been translated into Italian by CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences. Grazie!

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Neil Tyson: Let a Biologist Borrow Your Twitter Keys for a Day

Neil deGrasse Tyson is pretty darn cool. He’s an incredible science communicator and one of just a few scientists who have achieved celebrity status. He proactively educates people through lectures, documentaries and writing and he also issues occasional correctives on scientific topics to the media, Hollywood and politicians.

Of course, nobody has a perfect track record when it comes to science communication and every once in a while Tyson does get something wrong, including when he tweets to his 5 million followers.

In those moments, other scientists jump on Tyson’s messages, as we should expect from critical, skeptical researchers who care deeply about accuracy.

For instance, earlier this month, Tyson sent out a confusing tweet about evolution and how animals experience pain during sex. Many biologists and science writers were left scratching their heads. Tyson followed up with a link to biologist and writer Emily Willingham’s response, which was quite good. But his original tweet was shared 2,300 times while the follow-up was shared only 187 times. Unfortunately, that disparity in attention is pretty standard for correctives issued on social media.

Yesterday, Tyson rankled his poor beleaguered peers in biology again with a tweet about bats being “blind,” something biologists who work with those animals would call a big misconception.

Maybe this will all blow over, but biologists and science writers are surely scrutinizing Tyson’s 140-character messages a bit more than they would otherwise. Indeed, many biologists have taken to making up their own parody biology facts as seen through lens of an astronomer.

I have to wonder: will chemists, agronomists and engineers be next?  People who closely follow science are always wary when experts in one discipline start publicly talking about topics on which they don’t have formal training or a track record of peer-reviewed publication.

This led me to a thought about something neat and constructive Tyson could do in response to this recent flap. He should hand the keys to his Twitter account over to a biologist for a day.

How cool would that be? Tyson could use the powerful platform he’s built as an astronomer to highlight someone from another discipline for a day. That person would be able to introduce themselves to a very large audience, share a few compelling messages about their work, and walk away from the experience with more followers themselves. They might also learn that having 5 million followers means seeing in real-time that you can’t make everyone happy!

Heck, maybe this is something Tyson could do once a month, highlighting researchers from different disciplines throughout the year. It’d be a great benefit to the scientific community, a nice gesture from a leading scientist who commands such a large audience, and a project that could underscore the many different ways science touches our lives.

Finally, if you want to see some purely rotating science accounts in action, Real Scientists and I Am Scicomm are well worth following.

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Warming Up to Address Scientists’ Cold-But-Competent Stereotype

Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Cydnee Dupree have identified a big problem scientists have when it comes to how the public perceives their profession. But I think it’s a problem that scientists can easily address with a bit of foresight.

Cold but competent

Fiske and Dupree measured people’s impressions of different groups in society based on competence – our smarts, skills and competitiveness – and warmth, which can include our perceived sincerity and good-naturedness.

Take a look. Can you spot scientists here?


In this measure, scientists come across as highly competent, but not very warm. They have high status in society, people think, so they must be pretty good at what they do, but they’re just not sure about why it matters to them. In fact, this sort of cold-but-competent stereotype can provoke feelings of envy, according to Fiske and Dupree’s research. Indeed, I would hazard that this is probably one of the core emotional strains of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism in public life.

Conversely, check out doctors, nurses, teachers and professors. They’re competent and warm, in the public’s estimation. That stereotype provokes feelings of admiration, which is probably a lot closer to where science communicators would want to see “scientists” on this chart, especially if they care about public trust in science. (Their full paper is here.)

So what’s the difference here? I think people intuitively understand why doctors and nurses do what they do. They save lives and doing that sort of work requires some pretty obvious compassion and empathy for people.


Teachers teach. They love their students. Professors…profess and they’re often motivated by passing on knowledge to the next generation, too. But what do scientists do, generally speaking? Well, science. And that doesn’t tell the public much.

In a lot of public communication, I see scientists lead with their science and their methods and their expertise, but they don’t mention why they do what they do. Helping audiences understand that “why” is so important. As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has pointed out, failing to convey motivations to an audience means that people will fill in the blank with the nearest stereotype they have on hand.

Yes, Doc, but WHY did you build the time machine???

Yes, Doc, but WHY did you build the time machine again???

So researchers and science communicators who want to come across as a little warmer, a little more admired and – yes, a little more credible and relatable with audiences – should consider the following:

Be Personal

Ten or 20 years into a scientific career – or heck, even at the end of a PhD program – scientists sometimes find it difficult to harken back to why they got started down their career path in the first place.

Maybe it was nature walks they took when they were kids. Maybe they had an amazing teacher. Maybe they were always blown away by big machinery. Or, like a lot of nerds, perhaps it was the Star Trek that did it. (::raises hand::)

In every scientist’s life, there is some point or series of points at which they decided to dedicate themselves to difficult, sometime tedious work, to discover new things. Finding that moment – even if it’s something you fell into – is so important for connecting with audiences.

Be Curious

Most scientists got into the field because they were intrinsically fascinated by something. They were the kids who collected bugs in jars, who took the toaster apart and surprised their parents with dangerous birthday wish lists. (“But it’s just a chemistry set, mom!”)

Scott Mandia, an award-winning science communicator, likes to use the example of researchers who get dropped off in frigid polar wastes to study the climate. Are they doing that for the grant money? Or because it makes them the queen or king of the cryosphere? No way. You have to be Pretty. Damn. Curious. to take a trip like that.

Be Transparent

Why are you giving a talk, testifying before a committee or releasing a paper to the media? What’s your goal? For scientists, it’s usually to inform. They want people to be able to use research to guide everyday choices they make, whether it’s what kind of medicine they use or what kind of food they buy. And on the policy front, scientists want to make sure that political leaders can make decisions based on the best science. For scientists working on commercial products, it can also be to provide a service, grow a business or attract investors to a new innovation.

Scientists should always be up front with audiences about what they’re doing, why, and who is supporting their work. They also have to self-reflect: sometimes scientists engage in public communication as an extension of competition within the scientific community or because they really think they know better than everybody else. Those are unhealthy premises from which to take on science communication work and they can easily backfire, not just with the public, but with one’s colleagues’ too, especially when scientists leave their disciplinary lane.

Be Real

All of these points have to be genuine and come across as genuine. Audiences can sense something fake or manipulative a mile away. So, for instance, scientists shouldn’t name-check the local sports team when giving a public talk unless they really love that team. And if a scientist wants to invoke something general like being a parent, they should back that up with specific examples that are about them and their kid. It’s those detailed, specific stories that stick with audiences.

Fill in the blank

Helping audiences fill in these blanks can be a huge favor. If a scientist can get it down to a minute, that might be the “elevator pitch” for their work. These stories are also good openers for talks and testimony. And they’re great fodder for personal websites and sprucing up dusty faculty pages.

They can also be worth sharing on their own merits, as the growing Story Collider series has proven. And importantly, when scientists think deeply about why they really do what they do, it can also reveal stories about their own work that help them conceptualize new avenues for research. That’s right: all this fuzzy stuff about storytelling, narrative and audience can help researchers do better science, too!

A video version of this post is available here:

(3/14 update: I edited the links above to point to a story about the research and added another link to the paper itself.)

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When it comes to news writing, do scientists “say” or “conclude”?

Adam Siegel, a security analyst, management consultant, and blogger, made an interesting point on Twitter in response to a Washington Post headline about a sea-level rise study.

Indeed, people say all manner of things that may or may not be based on data and expertise. The verb “say” is ubiquitous in news writing and is perhaps uniquely democratic: it can describe statements from the proverbial “man on the street” just as easily as a speech from the president of the United States.

So do scientists and other analysts deserve different verbs when we’re talking about their research? I think there’s a case to be made that verbs like “conclude” or”find” are more precise for describing how scientists conduct analysis and…well, find things out and draw conclusions.

Naturally, if scientists are expressing an opinion – about a peer’s work or a matter of public dispute, for example – they might be “saying” something just like anybody else.

There’s a another way to think about this, too. Data and evidence can also do things like “show” and “demonstrate.” Writers might also attribute analytic findings to a paper, a research project or a scientific enterprise rather than to researchers themselves. Of course, that sometimes removes the human element from the equation, something scientists are used to doing in passive-voice academic writing.

These might seem like minor points at first blush, but I think Siegel is onto something. Certainly, in my own writing, I tend to use those more precise verbs, but then again, I’m used to scientists editing my prose!

It also reminds me of some other discussions I’ve had about people “believing” in climate change or evolution, a word that can easily conflate matters of fact with matters of opinion and faith. [Edit: Siegel just pointed me to one of his own posts on this very point.]

I do wonder, in the aggregate, if these small language choices are more powerful than we think. For now, I’ll have to file this under “topics I wish I could test in social science.”

Update 3/3/2016:

On Twitter, Beth R. also suggests the verbs: measure, examine, analyze, observe, find, determine, conclude.

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Science is a front in a lot of “wars,” even if there is no “war on science” itself

Scientific American recapped a recent conversation at a major scientific meeting about whether or not there is really a “war on science.”

As a communications practitioner who has helped many scientists deal with political attacks on their work, I don’t think there is a war on science itself. Rather, I think we’re dealing with politicians and advocates who see science as one of many fronts in a series of ongoing battles. Or, to drop the war metaphor for a second, science is simply caught up in a bunch of different democratic disputes.

Science is incredibly powerful

Science historian Mark Largent told meeting attendees that scientists shouldn’t approach this topic from a position of defensiveness, even when they are being attacked. Instead, he argued, researchers should recognize that science remains an incredibly powerful institution and that with great power, comes great responsibility.

It’s a provocative thought and my first instinct was to reject it. I know a lot of scientists who have felt absolutely helpless when politicians, advocates and straight-up trolls have attacked their research and their integrity. But as I thought about Largent’s point a bit more, I asked myself why people attack science in the first place. It’s usually because everybody in a political debate wants to be seen as having science on their side.

So even when individual researchers feel unfairly targeted by politicians or advocates, it’s helpful to understand that that is happening precisely because outsiders rightfully see the scientific community as a powerful arbiter of credibility in many democratic debates.

Different types of science provoke different reactions from citizens, advocates and politicians

In response to a series of Tweets I posted about this topic, sociology professor Aaron McCright pointed me to a helpful distinction he and his colleagues have made between various fields of science that have been caught up in public controversies.

war on science

March 2015 National Geographic cover.

“Production science,” they say, creates new things. That includes new medicines, new ways to harness and produce energy, new chemical compounds and new crops and food products. “Impact science,” meanwhile, focuses on what’s happening to our health, our air, our water, our atmosphere, and the world’s built and natural environments.

These distinctions help explain how someone like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House science committee, can be bullish on NASA’s production science, such as looking for life on Europa or the James Webb Telescope, but eager to cut NASA’s impact science, namely the agency’s Earth monitoring and climate research.

Conversely, anti-vaccine advocates think the pharmaceutical industry – a behemoth in production science – is poisoning children. So when they saw a piece of impact science by Andrew Wakefield, long-since retracted, which linked early-childhood vaccines to autism, they ran with it. And when public health impact scientists tell them they’re wrong – that vaccines save lives – they try to box those public health researchers in with the pharmaceutical industry, too.

Similar dynamics also play out in the scorched-earth world of disputes about agriculture and biotech. It strikes me that many people involved in that debate brand themselves as pro-science and are often tacitly arguing about whether or not agricultural production science or environmental and public health impact science should determine public policy outcomes on everything from crop subsidies to GMO labeling.

Better science communication relies heavily on history and other social science

There are plenty of other useful frameworks for examining why people accept or reject certain types of science. Cultural cognition research offers another lens, based on political ideology, for understanding challenges to everything from nuclear power to gun violence research. Conspiratorial thinking also helps explain the persistence of misinformation on many of these topics, which can stem from a simple distrust of elites, including scientists. And political science offers many lessons in how corporate spending on front groups, scientific consultants, and political speech can warp democratic debates, as well as the practice of science itself.

None of these frameworks offers a holistic explanation for why people reject science on a given topic, but they are all useful.

If we want to resolve any of these “wars” or “battles” or “disputes,” it’s important to understand why people outside the scientific community accept or reject specific scientific findings. We need to be able to accurately and effectively communicate with audiences about these topics on their terms rather than hoping, or insisting, that people outside the scientific community will learn to love and appreciate science for the same reasons we do.

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Via Wikipedia - Mike Cornwell from USA - 080321-MSP-2E8-4379RichardDawkins, original resolution

Good: Northeast Skeptics Drop Dawkins Amid Yet Another Social Media Flare Up

The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism has dropped Richard Dawkins as its keynote speaker this year. That’s a good thing.

Dawkins is a gifted writer and speaker and many of us enjoy a greater understanding of biology and evolution thanks to his work. He’s also written beautifully about the positive influence science and reason can have in our lives, arguing passionately that our scientific understanding of light, for instance, does not “unweave the rainbow,” but only makes it more gorgeous to behold.

Via Wikipedia - Mike Cornwell from USA - 080321-MSP-2E8-4379RichardDawkins, original resolution

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see him engage in such negative, boorish behaviors online, from criticizing Rebecca Watson for speaking out about rampant sexism among skeptics, to attacking “clock kid,” to his latest – sharing a terribly stupid, juvenile video titled, I kid you not, “Feminists love Islamists.”

(Caution from personal experience: If you find it and watch it, the tune will be stuck in your head while you’re making eggs in the morning…in a bad way! And you’ll be flummoxed as you try to figure out why a respected scientist would share such a thing online with his 1.3 million followers.)

Naturally, this will become part of the broader conversation about self-censorship, and free speech. Dawkins would certainly like to frame it that way and has been sharing messages like this on Twitter:

But I don’t really buy it. There’s something more basic and important happening here. Dawkins often acts like a jerk on social media. And Twitter is such an open, free-wheeling platform that he winds up alienating audiences for whom he never intended his original messages. As a result, Dawkins online posts feed into bad stereotypes about aloof, arrogant scientists and, at least in my opinion, do more to set him back as a public intellectual.

Additionally, no government is stepping in to censor Dawkins or his words. No one is shutting down his Twitter account. It’s a conference saying, “You know what? This guy’s not for us or our audience.” I’m sure Dawkins has plenty of other conferences at which he can speak and I’m sure there are plenty of speakers who are a better fit for NECSS and its members.

My completely unsolicited advice for Dawkins is that he should ask himself what his goals really are with Twitter and other social media. If it’s to piss people off and distract from science communication and humanism, he’s doing a bang up job. He might even have some lessons to learn from Alec Baldwin and other celebrities who have given the world a little too much access to their internal brain musings.

He might also follow some tips from other successful scientists on Twitter and try being a little more positive, inspirational and constructive, while saving the vicious takedowns and hyper-critical thought for blog posts, books and the lecture circuit, where those messages can be better understood in context by their intended audiences.

NECSS’s statement is below. And as a long time fan of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, I have to say that Steve Novella and crew have always approached their work with heart. They have empathy for people who disagree with them as well as people who are duped by charlatans and misinformers. That’s all too rare these days, but it’s critically important for good science communication. I appreciate their stand and the open way they’re communicating with members.

A Statement Concerning Richard Dawkins

The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video.

We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.

We will issue a full refund to any NECSS attendee who wishes to cancel their registration due to this announcement.

The NECSS Team

Feb. 2 update: I just read Steve Novella’s 1/30 explanation for dropping Dawkins. I agree with all of it, including his rebuttal to claims that the decision is somehow anti-free-speech given Dawkins’s already expansive platform. He also addresses what he considers a few valid criticisms of how he and his colleagues handled things. That’s classy and it’s in keeping with good skeptical thinking. The whole post is well worth a read.

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Be Brave, Even as You Find Your Science Communication Voice

Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill, two scientists who study the ocean and climate, published an interesting and, at times, challenging conversation on Medium yesterday that touched on an overlooked aspect of professional development in science communication.

As Hill puts it:

What is missing in many of these discussions and documents is how engaging in science communication will impact the scientists themselves. How will scientists walk the line between relaying scientific information and expressing personal views? How will researchers weigh the impact on their career — both positive & negative — that arise from speaking publicly about their work? How can universities and research institutes provide support to scientists who chose to spend time engaging and communicating?

Myhre agrees, noting:

We have almost no conversation within our community about how science communication and media exposure might impact individual scientists. I think this is where much of the moral quandaries exist.

They go on to discuss the hard work scientists have to do examining their own values and, indeed, their ultimate goals, when it comes to communicating to the public, policymakers and media. They also critically examine the practical trade offs scientists have to make when they prioritize communications work.

These are questions every scientist who does research of public import has had to grapple with, but it’s clear that a new generation of scientists is making a significant argument that Myhre articulates succinctly and powerfully:

Our institutions are responsible for evolving along with us.

Absolutely. The communications landscape has radically shifted since I earned my degree in the field. It will continue to do so under our feet and fingertips. Scientific societies, universities and training programs have to embrace constantly shifting communications best practices and effectively convey them to scientists.

But let’s not let these concerns hold us back, Myhre and Hill argue. All these changes mean we also have room to experiment, to figure out new things and to do so knowing that science has so much tell us about our world and about ourselves. Myhre and Hill conclude with a hopeful message suitable for framing and desktop backgrounds:

Be brave: there has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.

In fact, I found their message so inspiring, I went ahead and made a desktop background out of it. You can download it by clicking on the image below.


(It’s 1600 x 1200 and the base layer image is from NASA — naturally! — and was taken by Apollo astronaut William Anders.)

You can follow Myhre and Hill on Twitter. Their conversation is well worth a full read; it also includes a discussion of routine sexism in media coverage focused on female scientists that will ring true for many readers, too. Myhre also has another excellent Medium piece in which she guides readers through her process for carefully developing main messages around her research.

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Story Collider’s Science Storytelling Series is Coming to DC!

sclogo-indexThe Story Collider, a very cool science storytelling series, is coming to Washington, DC! Their first show will be on Wednesday, February 10 at 8 p.m. at DC9 (a.k.a. Nerd Nite DC’s long-time home).

Tickets are available here and, naturally, you can buy tickets in person at DC9, too.

If you’re wondering what to expect, check out Story Collider’s podcast. Or, as they inspiringly put it:

At the Story Collider, we believe that everyone has a story about science—a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We find those stories and share them in live shows and on our podcast. Sometimes, it’s even funny.

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