Recap on NYAS: Science Communication at a Crossroads

About a 100 attendees turned out for Thursday night's talk at the New York Academy of Sciences. The event marked the end of a year long series on science communication that was launched by Kate Seip, Liz Oswald, and other New York-area graduate students in partnership with the Academies.

As I mentioned at the outset of my talk, the series offers a unique model to be reproduced in major cities with well developed institutional science hubs such as San Francisco and Chicago. Already, a similar prototype exists in Seattle through the work of students at FOSEP and the University of Washington.

To cap off the year long series, I wanted to leave attendees with a few central principles that should inform thinking about science communication and various strategies for more effective public engagement. I've often talked about these principles at this blog, in various talks, and I have written about them most notably in articles at Science and The Scientist. As I posted last week, my friend Dietram Scheufele and I are expanding on these research-based conclusions in a big picture essay that we will have more news on soon.

In short, too much of the discussion about science communication continues to be based on a decades old false narrative that blames conflict and bad decision making on public ignorance. This myth of science illiteracy as culprit--paired with similar hyperbolic claims about "a rising tide of anti-science"--continues to distract scientists, advocates, journalists, and organizations from more effective public engagement. Worse, as applied in the case of the New Atheist movement, the false assumptions likely do further damage to the cause of public outreach.

In sharp contrast to these decades-old stereotypes about the public, research and evidence points to the following conclusions. Building public engagement efforts around these assumptions rather than false premises would be a major leap forward.

1. Research shows that science literacy has very little to do with public support, trust, perceptions, respect, or deference to scientific expertise.

2. In American society, scientific organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, authority, and hold great communication capital but need to learn to use this communication capital wisely and effectively.

3. Specifically, when an area of science spills into the wider public eye, science organizations need to provide messages that emphasize shared common values and personal relevance rather than make it easy for people to re-interpret science in terms of false conflict, complexity, or uncertainty. When science organizations fail to do this, they cede public communication to rival groups who seek to promote these interpretations.

4. Through public dialogue and consultation initiatives, science organizations need to empower citizens to participate in collective decisions but need to be prepared for citizen decisions to cut against the self-interests of science.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica

A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.

(Goldstein Lab/Wkikpedia/Tigerspaws/Big Think)
Surprising Science
  • Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
  • The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
  • Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less