Themes From Science Online 2013

I’d never been to a Science Online conference before this year. When I began concentrating more on science outreach I asked some of my friends if there were conferences I could go to to help me communicate more good. They all pointed me to Science Online, so I dutifully registered and attended the conference last week.

It did not disappoint.

Scio13 attendees
Attendees at Scio13. Pic by Russ Creech.
What makes Science Online such a great conference is its attendees. They come from many different communities, but they’re all interested in science communication. You’ve got scientists who blog talking to science journalists. You have video creators and science artists swapping tips on communicating visually. You’ve got teachers and book authors everywhere. And because Scio is organized as an unconference, the attendees help create the agenda and most of the sessions are discussions rather than lectures or panels.

Even with this disparate group of people and many different discussion topics, I kept hearing the same themes echo through the sessions and conversations, leitmotifs of science communication that cut across disciplines. So I did what any good attendee would do: wrote them down so I could blog about them. These are the themes that summarized a lot of my experience at Scio13.

Science is a process and a perspective. The common perception of science is that it’s a collection of facts, a repository of knowledge that we use to answer questions like “why does the moon look so big when it’s near the horizon?” and “is eating eggs really bad for me?” But science isn’t just made of facts piled up like grains of sand. Science is a way of thinking about the world and figuring out how it works. In communicating science, we want to help people understand the scientific way of thinking. We want them to know that science doesn’t stop. There’s always more to know, and what we learn changes old theories. Science is jazz, with new songs riffing on what’s come before.

In addition, science is a human activity. There is no emotionless machine turning grant money into knowledge. There’s just a bunch of people trying to figure out how the universe works. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they disagree. There are arguments and academic slap-fights, and that’s to be expected! People don’t agree perfectly in any other activity. Why should science be different?

If we want to communicate the process of science and make people care about it as a human activity, it helps to ground science in history and in people. Talking about the history of a scientific idea shows how science develops and undercuts the impression that it produces static knowledge. Talking about the people doing science help humanize it. We’re a bunch of hairless apes who’re wired to be social animals. We tend to be more interested in people than in abstractions. It’s why I loved how people responded to the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag: it’s showing a more human side of scientists and lab-work.

This is Nicolas Cage on the deficit model.
The deficit model isn’t the best way to think about science communication. The information deficit model is a common belief about science communication. People are skeptical about science? It’s because they don’t understand enough about science, so fill their heads with facts bestowed from on high. They’re still skeptical? Add more facts! This approach seldom works. In fact, people often dig in when confronted with facts that conflict with what they believe. I hadn’t heard the term “deficit model” before this conference, but the concept nicely captures something I need to take into account when talking about science.

As Perl taught me, there’s more than one way to do it. It’s tempting to think that there is one true and blessed way to tackle whatever science communication problem we’re facing, but that’s not true. There isn’t a single style of communication that’s best for everyone. It’s why we benefit from having as many people involved with science communication as possible. Having artists, bloggers, journalists, scientists, speakers, teachers, video producers, and more means we’ll have a lot of viewpoints and approaches.

Scientists are bad at communication, and why aren’t they communicating more? This is an extreme characterization of some conversations at Science Online, but there was a definite undercurrent of frustration with how often and how well scientists communicate. I was excited to see that Science Online attendees were tackling this problem from both sides. People like me from the science side of the divide were wanting to learn how to communicate better, while those from the communication and journalism side were interested in how better to work with scientists.

Performance, Feedback, Revision. That’s the title of a song by Baba Brinkman from his show The Rap Guide to Evolution. When he performed it at the conference, I realized that it was one of the conference’s theme. It’s both a nifty metaphor for how evolution works and a great guide to how you get better at communicating science.

Respect the audience you’re engaging with. “Respect” doesn’t mean that you agree with them, but that you’re willing to meet them where they are. Preaching from on high may give you a hit off of the pipe of righteous knowledge, but it’ll turn off the very people you’re trying to reach. You climbed up on your pedestal somehow; now climb back down so you can be alongside the folks you’re talking to. Emily Willingham had a great post about how doing so can change minds.

I went into Scio13 with a nebulous cloud of thoughts about how I communicate science. The conference sharpened my thinking and made concrete a lot of what had been abstract about my process. I’m excited to see how the themes I’ve highlighted will make me better at talking science.