Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing Tiffany Lohwater give a talk about science communication to a packed room of early career scientists and fledgling science writers and a few decidedly non-early career folks like myself. Lohwater is the Chief Communications Officer for AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (you may know them from this little journal they publish called Science). As she launched into her talk, it became clear that, while science communication efforts have some momentum, we still have a long ways to go.
Lohwater talked of still having to tell some AAAS members that “your words about science do not just go from your mouth to [your audience’s] receptive brains” and that, when some balked at the need for science communication, she had to remind them that they “sit within a bigger ecosystem” – meaning science is a part of society, not apart from society.
And, indeed, much has been written (dare I say “communicated”) about how simply explaining science better will not suddenly make an audience embrace and accept that science. There’s a whole field of study, the science of science communication, that shows us how the human brain is a complicated organ – one that often clings to old information over new and one that processes scientific information through a set of political, social, religious and personal filters.
Much has also been written about how primed we human are to accept facts that are, well, not exactly facts. And, indeed, as the role of truth and evidence in political and societal decision-making seems to be slipping away, it can get easy to be overwhelmed. But fear not, I come bearing good news!
As I learned yesterday, AAAS, one of the nation’s preeminent scientific organizations, is all-in on better science communication. From it’s Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology, to the Leshner Leadership Institute which provided intensive scicomm training to a cohort of researchers each year, to hosting innovative new projects like Science Storytellers at Family Science Days during their annual conference. (Kids interview scientists about what it is, exactly, they do all day – it’s adorable and inspiring.)
The fact that a professional scientific organization that was founded in the mid 1800’s and publishes one of the scientific journals of record is committing so many resources to science communication definitely inspired me to continue our work here at the Center for Limnology as we strive to live up to the Wisconsin Idea and share our stories with citizens, anglers, hunters, boaters and anyone in the state (and, well, the world) who is interested or invested in a freshwater ecosystem.
It also made me think of another piece of good (and, honestly, unexpected) news I recently read. A short opinion piece in the journal Frontiers in Communication entitled – “Science Journalism’s Unlikely Golden Age.”
The gist is this – even though cries of “fake news” are used to throw shade on all sorts of verifiable facts and even though Russian bots and home-grown psuedo-news organizations are actively sowing doubt and distrust in our society, to quote the authors, “there has never been more, better quality science and environmental journalism produced that there is today.”
As traditional newsrooms shrink and the science and environment beat gets all but abandoned, online outlets and magazines like Undark, bioGraphic and Hakai to list just a few, are springing up to bring audiences across the world in-depth news and long-form stories of the scientific endeavor. And those stories aren’t getting told to no one. These platforms all exist because they have found an avid audience for their content. The audience for science and environmental journalism hasn’t shrunk – it’s just gotten more diffuse, spread out across various interests and media platforms.
One success story in science communication that Thomas Hayden, one of the co-authors of the Frontiers in Communications piece, likes to share is that of the perception of climate change in the United States. Despite coordinated misinformation campaigns and industry groups spending millions to get climate denial messages front and center with American audiences, the majority of U.S. adults believes that climate change is real. Hayden, who is the director of the environmental communication Master of Arts program at Stanford, argues that single fact is a science communication success story. One that shows the power of continually sharing scientific messages with the public. And, most importantly, starting a conversation, not a lecture.
At the very least, combined with yesterday’s talk from Tiffany Lohwater, it made me feel a little bit better about this whole pursuit!