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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
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.