Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Re-Defining Science Communication: Emerging Best Practices that Empower the Public
Over the past few years, scholars and scientists have been re-examining both the goals and the nature of science communication initiatives. In a guest post today, Melanie Gade reviews much of this recent discussion and innovation. Gade is a graduate student in this semester's course on "Science, the Environment and the Media" at American University-- MCN.
Traditionally, delivery of scientific data has lacked context, making it difficult for the public to ascribe value to the importance of the data. Current science communication models operate on the premise that informed decisions must be based on solid science, to the exclusion of the public's values and identities.
“The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors,” writes Daniel Kahan of Yale University. “If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten peoples' cultural values, then holding their heads under water is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence.”
The one-way, top-down nature of climate change communication can add to the perception of scientists as "elitists," since in this approach the scientist is the “expert” and the public the “uninformed.” The resulting gap between the scientific community and the public highlights the need for reexamining the institutional framework of science communications.
In communicating about scientific data, scientists must integrate how individuals receive information and make their decisions. Scientific data delivered in an accessible format empowers the recipients to become part of the climate change discussion.
CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND SCIENCE
A re-conceptualization of the institutional framework surrounding science communications about climate change is required. As Nisbet and colleagues argue, communication can be effectively planned and implemented via interdisciplinary partnerships and initiatives at universities and other community-based institutions.
These civic engagement initiatives may prove a more effective communication strategy for climate change scientists. Instead of disseminating "top-down" scientific data and educating the “illiterate” public (under the guise of scientific literacy campaigns), scientists can work towards providing forums that:
EXPERTS, THE PUBLIC AND POLICY DECISIONS
By rethinking the standard communications framework, it is also critical to reexamine two fundamental questions: who are the experts and what are the ranges of policy options available?
In multi-faceted, interdisciplinary communications partnerships among organizations, universities and community based institutions, instead of “experts,” scientists should view themselves as honest brokers of information who seek to involve the public in a discussion by translating scientific advice in a way that is meaningful and useful to individuals without imposing a set of policy directions.
The following are proposals and examples for improving science communication by increasing the social relevance of science and through new institutional configurations as described in a recent special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment .
INSTITUTIONAL LEVEL CHANGES
1. “Require researchers to describe the “broader impacts” of their work as a component of their grant proposals” (Whitmer et al, 2010).
* Caveat: As climate science becomes more integrated with conversations about people’s values and identities, it will remain difficult for scientists to define their work in this “wider social matrix,” without scientists themselves politicizing their research.
2. “Improve the coordination between federal agencies that address scientific questions for which policy makers and managers need answers.” (Pouyat et al, 2010).
* Example: The National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a “network science” project of infrastructure but also a “network of ideas” . . . to provide a more comprehensive assessment of ecological change . . . enabling creativity and collaboration across organizations, and across science disciplines or geographic boundaries. All science data is made available to the public on a new web portal.
3. “Provide or expand existing mechanisms (and rewards) for the scientific community to encourage feedback directly to the management and policy communities” (Pouyat et al, 2010).
* Example: The USGS Global Change Science Strategy Draft is currently open to the public for comments and allows for direct feedback from the public.
4. “Bring scientists to the table to participate at the start of a management plan (rather than for review at the end)” (Pouyat et al, 2010).
5. “Create an environment that enhances the interaction between scientists and users of scientific knowledge” (Pouyat et al, 2010).
* Example: Possibilities for Q&A between scientists and the public. Steven Schneider’s program on climate change exemplifies an important medium for discussion. However, this type of public education has been critiqued by some as just another form of “PR”. Some limitations of this strategy include: (i) the scientist is acting as a “science arbiter” and may unintentionally fall into “stealth issue advocacy,” (ii) this type of public engagement operates under the Deficit Model where the scientist is the expert, transmitting one-way information to the “uninformed” public.
6. Alternative publishing platforms - articles published online and Open Access - “content will be redefined to include the conversation it engenders” , blogs/ social media provide opportunities for scientists to interact with and include the public in the discussion.
* Example: Elsevier has introduced a wiki based service, “SciTopics” that allows field experts to maintain pages on individual topics.
ACTIVITY LEVEL CHANGES
Develop new opportunities for scientists to engage the public in their science.
1. Citizen Science Programs - civic education allows for science organizations to tap into social identities, affiliations and to encourage group participation (see discussion in The Psychology of Climate Change Communication 2009). Citizen science campaigns successfully take into account how decisions are formed, promote trust and efficacy, and impart information about how to become engaged around the issue- targeting the message around action based objectives.
* Example: National Phonology Network and Nature’s Notebook ; Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon and their eBird database- Citizen Science observations are collected and recorded through these two programs and used by scientists, resource managers and planners to track effects of environmental variation and climate change on plants and animals to inform management practices.
Increasing citizen science programs will require a restructuring of how scientific research is valued: “many of the collaborative programs that do take place are included in a “service category,” which is often the least valued of the three pillars (i.e. research, teaching, and service.)” (Whitmer et al, 2010)
2. Civic Education Programs
Example: NSF, NBC, Yale and Discover magazine have joined together to produce the “Changing Planet: The Impact on Lives and Values” a series of three televised town hall meetings discussing what climate change means and the impact it is having on the planet.
MESSAGING -- CHANGING THE DISCOURSE
1. Scientists’ messages need to, proactively, do more to establish the trust and confidence of the public. Four workshops organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences encouraged scientists to see “the world through the eyes of the many and diverse groups of citizens affected by their work” and anticipate future problems so as to avoid the mistrust and conflict that have characterized the “divide between scientists and various subsets of the American public.” [PDF]
Recommendations from the Workshops reported by Chris Mooney in a 2010 article:
2. Speak the same language: frame the climate change discussion in language understood by various constituencies.
* Example: For businesses, quantify effects of climate change in monetary terms. The Dow Chemical and The Nature Conservancy are collaborating to “tally up the ecosystem costs and benefits of every business decision.”
3. Scientists can be more effective communicators when speaking to the public. In a 2008 article published in the journal EOS, Susan Joy Hassol provides several examples:
4. Other examples of factors in messaging are delineated in The Psychology of Global Warming: Improving the Fit between the Science and the Message” and include:
-- Guest post by Melanie Gade, a graduate student in Public Communication at American University, Washington, DC. This post is part of the course "Science, Environment, and the Media" taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American. See also other posts on the climate change debate by Ms. Gade and members of her project team.
Nisbet, M., Hixon, M., Moore, K., & Nelson, M. (2010). Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 329-331 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-8.6.329
Groffman, P., Stylinski, C., Nisbet, M., Duarte, C., Jordan, R., Burgin, A., Previtali, M., & Coloso, J. (2010). Restarting the conversation: challenges at the interface between ecology and society Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 284-291 DOI: 10.1890/090160
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.