This past week, I was lucky enough to attend ComSciCon 2014 in Boston. ComSciCon stands for the “Communicating Science Conference” and is basically a workshop run by graduate students, for graduate students, so we can get together, share ideas, and ultimately become better science communicators. The workshop was a whirlwind of panel discussions, writing sessions, 1 minute pop talks, scrumptious crudités, and awesomely talented graduate students. I’m still processing the whole thing, but in true UndertheC blog fashion I’ve compiled a list of what, in my opinion, are the top 5 takeaway messages from ComSciCon 2014.
1. Make sure your science tells a story.
This concept probably forms the base for everything else we learned at the workshop. Humans connect to ideas and values through emotion, so it’s important to make sure your science has a story–narrative structure, pacing and all–which hits people right in the feels. The combination of ideas and the emotion your science story elicits in your audience is what will engage them and make them remember your work. In this way, art can be a delivery system for science, whether that’s through writing, video, audio, or some combination of these. Ideally, no one should even be aware that they are learning when they’re experiencing your awesome “science story”.
2. Make that story relevant to people’s lives.
Another reoccuring theme was that the current “zombie of science communication” (i.e, an idea that keeps being debunked and then rising from the dead once more) is the idea that if scientists can just give people more information, they’ll love science/make more pro-science decisions/lead us into a utopian future where climate change has been dealt with and dinosaurs once more roam the Earth. However, this idea is crap. Most people have more immediate and pressing things to worry about–like paying their bills, or getting their dog treated for heartworms–than many of the things scientists care about. So it’s our job to show people how scientific issues like climate change or stem cell research affect their daily lives. Doing this requires that we reframe science to make it relevant and easily digestible. Cultural relevance–making sure to address the ways in which people from other cultural groups might perceive things differently–is also key.
3. Understand that people’s environments and social groups shape their opinions. People’s perceptions of science are shaped by those values.
Humans don’t exist in a vacuum. Our day-to-day group of friends, family, neighbors, etc. all play a huge role in determining our opinions on science. Studies show that usually, you’ll believe something if your community believes it. And the aforementioned “throwing information at people” model won’t work–people will choose to cherry-pick information that fits with their values, discounting research that doesn’t fit their preexisting ideas as untrustworthy. So you can be empirically right, and have the data to back it up, but if your audience doesn’t want to believe you you’re going to have a tough time of it. Which brings me to my next point…
4. Denial of scientific facts and theories happens when people’s values are threatened.
When people think, unconsciously or otherwise, that their worldview is under attack, they’re likely to decry the findings that undermine that worldview as false. It’s not the science itself that people dislike, but the implications that science has for the way the world should/does work. To combat this, scientists should focus on framing issues in ways that jive with people’s preexisting values–we have to meet people where they are, so to speak. A great example I heard at ComSciCon is that when talking to someone who denies the validity of climate change, it might work better to reframe the issue in terms of the possibilities of geoengineering and the opportunity for human entrepreneurship/ingenuity in the face of climate change’s effects. Again, make the science relevant to values and concepts that people already care about.
5. People don’t need to love science; they just need not to hate it so much that they stop it from succeeding in informing policy decisions.
A slightly cynical view maybe, but one that I think needs to be heard. It’s great for people to love science for science’s sake, and I think it’s a worthwhile goal, but the bottom line is that we just need people not to distrust science so much that they obstruct it from influencing policy decisions. Just like any other field–banking, marketing, whatever–there will be people who find it fascinating and people who don’t. That’s fine; we just don’t want people actively disliking science. This I think goes back to my previous point–by framing things to encompass our audience’s values, we can maybe keep people from feeling threatened in the first place.
BONUS: Be alright with sucking at what you do, at least for a little while.
I think this is important to hear, no matter what field you want to go into. Give yourself permission to try and fail, over and over again. It’s how you get better and how you discover what you actually want to do with your life. I struggle with this all the time, sometimes to the extent where I won’t try something for fear it won’t be successful. I guess that means I’m failing at be okay with failure. Hooray for me!
For more information about Comscicon, check out their website: http://comscicon.com/ or #comscicon on twitter. And keep an eye out for next year’s application for Comscicon 2015!