Science Online Together: day 2 recap

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I think this tidbit I posted on Twitter summarizes day 2 of Science Online well: “Attending #scio14 as an introvert is like the emotional equivalent of running a marathon.” Or three, as was pointed out to me in a reply. It’s tiring! But awesome.

CONVERGE session: Reaching Diverse Audiences

To start out the day we were treated to a talk by Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics, about that time he was commissioned to make a video explaining the Higgs boson… then a year went by, and the director of the ATLAS Higgs group told him it was all wrong. The truth is, once the true explanation of the Higgs mechanism/field/boson — the mathematical one — filters through scientists, publicists, journalists, and the internet, it can get pretty distorted. Who can blame the cartoonist at the end of the chain? Just a few days ago, Jorge put up a new comic “re-explaining” the Higgs boson, which stays a lot closer to the fundamental math. It certainly gets my seal of approval! (Self-plug: if you want to see the actual math behind the Higgs mechanism, check out my blog post on the subject.)

Bonus perk: I met Jorge after his talk. He’s really nice. :-)

After that, Monica Feliu-Mojer gave a very enlightening presentation on Ciencia PR, a bilingual organization that curates Spanish content from mostly Puerto Rican scientists for distribution to people in Puerto Rico. Ciencia PR and other organizations like it exist because most science content is packaged in a way that targets a traditional white, educated, primarily male audience. When someone in a place like Puerto Rico looks at that content, they see science as something foreign and unfamiliar. On the other hand, if you get Puerto Rican scientists to talk about Puerto Rican science topics — her example was the geology of the island, and how it “migrated” from the Pacific Ocean due to plate tectonics — the science becomes more relatable to other Puerto Ricans, and they’re a lot more likely to be interested in science in general.

Discussion session: Beyond Blogs, Twitter, and FB

The day’s first session, run by Joe Hansen, focused on other social media platforms beyond the “big three” — blogs, Facebook, and Twitter — that can be used to promote science. Platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Vine, which facilitate easy sharing of photos and videos, are quickly gaining popularity especially among younger kids. If we as scientists and science communicators aren’t using those platforms to promote our content, we’re potentially missing out on a large and very receptive audience.

Of course, creating videos and images isn’t as easy as writing. Some science communicators have the resources to put out this type of content consistently; these are usually large corporations or government organizations with well-established outreach teams, like Google, GE, or NASA. Others, like bloggers and independent video creators, can’t. But on the other hand, it’s often easier to go into more depth on a topic in a written medium like a blog or newsletter. We can enjoy some of the benefits of both kinds of content by cross-linking between videos and blogs on a certain topic, allowing consumers to follow a trail from, say, a popular science video on a topic to a blog post on the same topic to a science news article on a related topic and finally to the relevant research paper (if they’re really interested).

On another note, the community brought up the importance of knowing your audience and connecting with them on a personal level. People respond to these personal connections, whether they come from your (the science communicator’s) own personal experience, or stories that make the science seem more human. This builds off the same lessons brought up in #scioSelfPR the previous day and this morning’s CONVERGE session on Ciencia PR, and other sessions that I didn’t get to go to.

For more information on this session, follow the #scioBeyond hashtag on Twitter.

Q&A session: Insights from Science Communication Research

In the second time slot of the day, I sat in on a Q&A session with Liz Neely and Louie Rivers, two experts on science communication as a formal subfield of psychological research. A lot of questions got brought up and answered in various ways in this session; here are some of the main ones I caught:

  • Why do scientists feel the need to communicate to the public in the first place? Well, not all of them do. But for those who do, the reasons include sharing the inspiration they feel when they think about science, improving the education of the general public as a societal obligation, and other things.
  • What are effective techniques for communicating science? In a sense the whole conference is about this so most of what came up in other sessions is relevant to this question as well. The key seems to be knowing your audience though. No one technique works for everyone, because different people learn in different ways and respond to different kinds of content, so it’s necessary to put your message in the proper context for the people you’re trying to reach and appeal to things they’re familiar with. Repetition is also very important, as even having a message repeated often enough by one person can make it seem more real, although having it come from a variety of trusted sources is better.
  • Is there research on how people respond to positive vs. negative information? Yes (of course); people tend to remember negative information more strongly, which is why fearmongering is (unfortunately) so effective, but even this depends on context and what you’re trying to convey.
  • What are effective ways to address misconceptions? It helps to respect people’s existing views and strongly held beliefs. Don’t tell them that their entire philosophy of life is wrong; instead, give them a smaller nugget of information that doesn’t make them question everything they know. Also, use personal stories, not just data, to make information more relatable.
  • What can communicators do to help scientists get their message across more clearly? Helping scientists understand the journalistic process may be one thing. We ran out of time on this point though.

There was lots more that I wasn’t able to catch during this session, so for more information, check the #scioSciComm hashtag.

Discussion session: lessons from teaching for science communication

After lunch I attended a very interesting discussion led by Aatish Bhatia on how lessons from traditional science education — that is, teaching — can be applied to improve science communication. This session focused on three pillars of effectively conveying science knowledge: (1) generate interest in the topic by relating it to reality, (2) produce clarity through a well-structured argument, and (3) help the information endure by making sure the audience is invested in the question. Several of the teachers in the room brought up familiar ways to do this in teaching, such as interactive labs in which the students develop their own hypotheses or classroom demonstrations with surprising properties (really Adam, what is in that edible candle?), and then the discussion turned to ways to apply the principles to science writing.

One of the main themes the community focused on was the importance of confusion in the process of learning. Rhett Allainn was quoted on saying “confusion is the sweat of learning,” which is an apt analogy for teaching because in order to really learn a concept, it’s necessary to go through some confusion to break down previous incorrect assumptions you may have had about that. But how do you — or do you even — create that sort of confusion in an article? Well, when reporting on a scientific result, you can guide the reader through the confusion that the scientists themselves had before they found the result by presenting the broader context of the work. More generally, people often have existing misconceptions about a topic that you can address head-on, before explaining the “right answer” to induce a period of confusion. But this backfires sometimes, because simply mentioning a misconception can make it more likely to be remembered, and indeed sometimes people will remember the misconception better than the actual explanation!

For more on this session, follow the #sciImprove hashtag on Twitter.

Discussion session: Blog Networks

I closed out the day attending a session on the role of blog networks in science blogging, now and in the future. This one was led by Curtis Brainard, the editor of the Scientific American blog network.

The main point to come up was, why use a blog network in the first place? This is not hard, as it’s easy to see some of the advantages of being in a network, as a blogger: you benefit from the promotion efforts of the network’s sponsor, it gives your blogging a sense of legitimacy that an independent blog may lack, you get a sense of community and collaboration with other bloggers in the network, and you have the support of a manager when things go wrong (such as copyright infringement lawsuits or persistent comment trolls). It also increases your appeal to readers because they get the sense you’ve been “vetted” by the network (whether or not that actually happens). Of course, there are disadvantages too, in particular working in a blog network doesn’t give you the same level of independence as with an independent blog, and you have an obligation to write even when it’s not convenient to do so. Sometimes interpersonal differences among the bloggers and the manager can make for a difficult experience, or even lead to the death of a blog network, as with “PepsiGate” and the Science Blogs network.

There were quite a few other issues brought up that we didn’t have time to fully flesh out in the session, so check out the #sciBlogNet Twitter hashtag for more!

Dinner Gala and PowerPoint Karaoke

We wrapped up the day with a sci-fi themed dinner held in the Sheraton’s ballroom, featuring little hamburgers and chicken sandwiches and, you know, food :-P on a buffet. The more exciting parts of that were the sci-fi themed decorations, the carbonated dry-ice ice cream, and the after-dinner entertainment. Brian Malow put together a little shindig called “PowerPoint karaoke.” The premise is that someone goes up on a stage and gives a short presentation based on slides which they do not get to see in advance! So they have to make up what they’re talking about on the spot. Especially considering that each presenter was given a set of slides on a topic completely different from what they knew, it was absolutely hilarious. Kudos to the organizers on putting that together.

After that, events continued with karaoke (the normal kind) and game night downstairs, but I was too tired to do anything other than going to sleep. Which sucks. I hate to have missed out on the party, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do… which is also why I’m bringing the blog post to you now, the next morning. Time to get started on the last day of the conference!