How Can We Overcome SciComm Misconceptions?

What makes someone a science communicator? A science degree? Journalism credentials? A lab coat and penchant for cheesy science humor?

How can we make room for diverse voices and backgrounds to participate in scicomm and feel a part of the scicomm community?

This community has grown exponentially over the last several years, helping reinforce the importance of good scicomm for engaging non-scientists, increasing interest and trust in science, and applying science to societal issues. However, with the rise in scicomm, a number of concerns have popped up (particularly by scientists) about who has a “right” to communicate science, how they should communicate it, and whether science communication is having a positive or negative impact on public perception of science.

In this vein, I’ll be convening a workshop at this year’s Science Talk in Portland, where I hope to encourage reflection on how we can create a supportive and inclusive community while promoting transparent, trustworthy approaches to science communication.

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 4.00.51 PM.png
Do you need to be a scientist to be a science communicator? Can you be a serious scientist if you spend a lot of time communicating? Believe it or not, these are still ongoing scicomm debates.

As a PhD trained scientist who transitioned to a full-time scicomm career several years ago, I still sometimes struggle with feeling a part of the science communication community, and feeling like I have the “authority” to call myself a science communicator. I see others struggle with these things too–like for example, Allison Gasparini, who writes about the difficulty of having the “right” mix of science background and journalism training to compete for scicomm jobs.

On the other extreme, there are super confident non-scientist communicators out there who have no problem self-identifying as purveyors of science to the masses. Some of these folks are writers or journalists who do a great job of digesting and translating science into engaging and useful pieces of communication. Others (knowingly or unknowingly) misinterpret scientific findings, or worse share unverified or false scientific information that mislead the public–whether it be about nutrition, GMOs, vaccines, or what have you.

While most scicommers would agree that scicomm is a critical component of science, it is important to address the concerns of scientists and others about what makes responsible science communication (e.g., citing reliable/verifiable sources, disclosing any biases), and how we can support scicomm-ers in this endeavor.

In my workshop I plan to facilitate discussions around best practices of responsible and effective science communication–principles that anyone, no matter their background or training, can implement to reinforce a transparent approach to science communication. From there I hope to elicit some concrete recommendations on how the scicomm community can support us as individuals to do effective and engaging science communication. I’m excited to hear what misconceptions have most plagued others, and what strategies scicomm folks have for promoting an inclusive scicomm community that values transparency, accuracy, and respect.

ben-white-178537-unsplash.jpg
Pssst! What’s the secret to great science communication?

If you plan to attend Science Talk and want to be part of this conversation, I encourage you to join my workshop at 9am on Friday, April 5th. If you won’t be at the conference but want to participate in this conversation, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and questions via email or social media!

This workshop will be just the beginning of a broad conversation about how to create a supportive, inclusive, and transparent scicomm community–and all voices are welcome. The objective of my workshop is to produce a working document of best practices that can continue to be honed and expanded upon as the field of scicomm evolves.

Don’t Not Panic – mixed messaging is detrimental to climate change action

If you try to keep up with the latest in climate change news, you might feel a bit like I do right now: a deer in headlights.

Earlier this week, David Wallace-Wells published an opinion piece about climate change in the New York Times titled ‘Time to Panic’. He argues that based on current scientific understanding and predictions, it is completely appropriate—and even imperative—for society to be in freak-out mode over climate change. This, in turn, should motivate us toward desperate action.

Soon after, Eric Holthaus wrote a short response article in Grist titled ‘Why you shouldn’t panic’. His main argument is, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So, what to do when confronted with scenarios of extreme storms, loss of entire coastlines, and millions of climate refugees? Panic? Or stay calm and collected?

To panic or not to panic—that is the question

Mixed messaging has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Although the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has steadily strengthened and future predictions all point to escalating negative impacts, how to communicate this to the public has remained a source of contention.

Messaging has wavered between extreme doom-and-gloom, à la Wallace-Wells’ nightmarish “post warming world”, and the more optimistic “but there’s still hope!” approach that many scientists and conservationists support.

Wallace-Wells’ reasoning for pressing the panic button is pretty simple: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” he argues.

There’s research to back this up. A study that looked at the connection between emotion and behavior change found that fear and guilt were stronger motivational factors than hope.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain the study’s authors.

Fear is a biological response to perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones that sharpen functions that should help us survive (eyesight), while shutting down ‘inessential’ functions (digestion). This survival mechanism can indeed provide us almost super-human (albeit momentary) powers to overcome imminent dangers—like pulling people out of burning buildings or lifting yourself up over a cliff edge.

But living with constant fear can have serious health consequences, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease. When you’re faced with fear on a daily basis, your body can lose its ability to process emotions and make clear decisions.

As Holthaus says, “your brain literally can’t perceive reality accurately in that state of heightened anxiety. Just ask anyone who has ever had a panic attack. It isn’t fun. Fear shouldn’t be what we strive for.”

I’ve had several panic attacks throughout my life, and I agree; they aren’t fun. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you gulp for breaths, and your mind dabbles with the worst thoughts. You definitely aren’t at your most rational during a panic attack. But what these panic attacks did do was make me realize the very real connection between my mental and physiological health. And they made me act to prevent having more panic attacks in the future.

Taking medication, developing a practice of meditation and yoga, and setting realistic goals all helped me reduce my panic attacks. This doesn’t mean I’ll never have a panic attack again, but it helps me take control of the situation and regulate my behavioral response, rather than feeling paralyzed.

In the same way, I can see how using our fear of climate change impacts to motivate action could help us reduce our climate anxiety and regain a sense of ‘control’ over our collective future. It may not prevent all the impacts of climate change, but it could help us cope and adapt. And when it comes down to it, I think Wallace-Wells and Holthaus actually agree on this—if they could just get beyond their need to differentiate themselves and make people choose sides based on semantics.

Wallace-Wells says, “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.” A clearly defined threat incites action—when humans are confronted with catastrophe, whether earthquakes or war, we time and again work together to rebuild communities and societies.

Holthaus says, meanwhile, “It’s courage, not fear, that will bring about the long overdue world we all need.” This is not counter to Wallace-Wells’ argument. It’s just the necessary response. When faced with life-threatening fear, we must conjure courage in order to act and overcome the threat. After all—without fear, where does courage come from?

Conquering Fear

But how we manifest that courage matters, too. For Wallace-Wells, our focus on consumer culture and individual actions—like buying an electric car or forgoing air travel—is a cop-out, a distraction from the much more necessary collective actions and policies that must be coordinated across regions, states, and nations.

“That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

Holthaus’s article focuses on grassroots movements rather than government policies, and he references a recent essay by Mary Annaïse Heglar to drive home the lessons we can learn from the civil rights movement and the existential threat African Americans have felt for centuries. But even the quote he chooses to display from this essay belies the connection between fear, courage, and action.

“Nothing scares me more than climate change,” Heglar writes, “but I made up my mind to face it head-on—because of my debt to future generations and to previous generations.”

This sentiment echoes the tone taken by Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old Swedish student who’s made waves by chiding world leaders’ inaction on climate change and has led a global student strike to unite the voices of her generation:

‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

To me, this is the biggest challenge we must address to act on climate change. We must perceive the threat as an emergency, one we don’t have the luxury to ignore. Not an emergency that we can’t do anything about—because we can. Once a house is on fire we can still put it out, keep it from damaging the entire property, and spreading to other properties. We can save the people and animals in that house. We can choose to re-build or not, and use different materials and develop strategies to reduce the risk of fire.

We can and should do this more comprehensively, at all scales, for climate change impacts.

In the end, I think David Wallace-Wells and Eric Holthaus are actually on the same team, with the same message—if they could only recognize it. We must turn our fear into action rather than paralysis, and demand the same of our leaders and governments.

As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

miguel-bruna-503098-unsplash
Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Four Things Every Science Communicator Dreads about Conference Posters (and how to avoid the things!)

I have a deep, dark, shameful secret to admit—poster sessions at conferences make me cringe. There, I said it.

It’s not actually the sessions that bother me—I think they provide an opportunity to have one-on-conversations with colleagues and prospective collaborators, all while partaking in (hopefully free) booze and greasy snacks.

No, it’s the posters themselves that make my science communicator heart sad. When did it become the norm for posters to have infinitely small text, ridiculously jargony language, and obscenely dull visuals? Why isn’t anyone making use of the many at-your-fingertips editing and design apps to jazz up their posters these days? Who are those people taking time to actually read any of these wall-mounted journal articles? They must be angels.

priscilla-du-preez-623040-unsplash
“Look how much fun we’re having designing this conference poster!” said no grad student ever….until now.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve walked past a poster that grabbed my attention and reeled me in for a closer read, and one of those times was because the poster was about manatees—my all-time favorite ocean animal. But the other times were posters that used an eye-catching design, graphics, and images, and more importantly didn’t include superfluous text. Most other posters look like they’ve downloaded their template straight from the PowerPoint starter pack:

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 4.14.52 PM

I think that all conference posters should be, nay deserve to be, eye-catching and creative. I don’t really blame the poster authors for the current state of blandness. Most of us are just following advice, templates, or examples from senior members of our field, assuming that a conference poster has to follow a specific set of poster-design commandments passed down through the ages. Poster sessions have become as standard as talks at scientific conferences, and the ‘poster presentation’ is a rite of passage for most graduate students.

But guess what? There are no poster commandments. And the budding young scientists rejoiced.

There are recommendations and guidelines for conference posters, but almost no conference committee requires that a poster be designed to look exactly like a scientific paper smooshed all onto one page. It’s true! Release the shackles. I looked up poster guidelines for several of the largest science conferences in my field, and not one of them prescribed a strict template. In fact, most stressed that less text and more visuals were preferred, and that posters should be used to spark conversation, not summarize your work in full detail.

helena-lopes-459331-unsplash
Here are some scientists rejoicing in the knowledge that they never have to use PowerPoint Template #3 again to design a conference poster.

Here are three examples of poster guidelines I found on conference websites:

The American Geological Union (AGU) states, “Include the background of your research followed by results and conclusions. A successful poster presentation depends on how well you convey information to an interested audience.”

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC): “Text should be limited to brief statements. Each poster should make a unified, coherent explanation of your work. Materials, both textual and visual, should be of professional quality and clearly legible from a distance.”

Ecological Society of America (ESA): The only specific poster guidelines listed on the ESA website are related to poster size dimensions.

So why aren’t more scientists breaking free from the standard PowerPoint three column poster template? It may be fear of breaking an unwritten norm and losing esteem in the eyes of their colleagues. Or it could be they just don’t realize that they have nearly a blank slate upon which to slather creativity and novelty. Either way, in the hopes of encouraging at least a few future poster presenters out there to consider changing it up, I’ve created a list of five things to avoid when making a conference poster, and what you can do instead. This isn’t an exhaustive list of pointers for designing a good poster—there are plenty of sites out there with that kind of information (like this, this, or this). My list is more about hacking away at the wretched habits of generations of boring posters, and moving into an era free from (okay, at least less dominated by) columns and boxes.

If you consider these four points the next time you are tempted to default to that icky PowerPoint template, your local science communicator will thank you, and may just give you a big grateful hug. And if you need help with a design, don’t be afraid to reach out to the #scicomm community!

Alright, without further ado, here are four  conference poster no-no’s according to a scientist turned science communicator:

1. Text, text and more text.

Your poster doesn’t need to describe every detail about your research. That’s what the interaction at poster sessions is for—the talk with other people about your work. Focus on the broader context and importance of your research, rely more on visuals, and provide your contact info so interested folks can contact you if they want to know more. A viewer should “get it” in 30 seconds. You can provide in-depth information in a handout.

A good rule of thumb I’ve seen is that if you removed all the body text from your poster, your visuals should still be able to tell a story. If you’re really feeling bold, do away with paragraphs all together! Just use dot points and key phrases that people can easily follow. Also, try to keep 40% of the poster area empty of text and images. I would also love to see more posters with titles that I can understand without needing five PhDs (one is enough for me, thanks!). Simple language does not mean less scientifically sound.

Here’s some inspiration:

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.19.00 AM
This poster uses key highlights and large visuals to tell a clear, engaging story without much text.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.21.24 AM
Brief text, large and interesting visuals, and contrasting colors really draw the eye to this poster.

2. Boring boxes in boring columns in boring colors.

While you don’t want your reader to be confused about how to follow the story you present on your poster, there is no law stating you have to use 3 columns with one box for each section and the standard Microsoft color scheme. There just isn’t. You can still organize your points from top to bottom and left to right, or by separating text using boxes in some cases, but you can do this and still make an interesting design. Think infographic instead of scientific poster.

Here are some examples:

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.26.43 AM
You can take a slightly unconventional approach to poster design and still get your points across clearly with a little creativity.
Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.27.04 AM
This poster takes a bit more of an infographic approach to explain their research activities.

3. Low quality images that look like pixelated blobs.

Okay, so you’ve thrown a bunch of images on your poster to take the place of the text, but you failed to consider whether they were high enough resolution, or whether anyone would be able to tell that that pixelated bunch of brown cells is actually a soil sample under a microscope. Instead, make sure to use high quality images (check the file size and resolution), crop as necessary to focus on key parts of the image, and try to use photos that have contrasting colors or clear features that enhance your research story. Do you study wombats or pitcher plants or tardigrades? Use several awesome photos of them on your poster! Even if you study something less glamorous or more abstract, use drawings, cartoons, or photos of the habitat/region you study that draw attention to your topic, like this poster:

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.28.30 AM
This poster uses a fairly standard layout, but with minimal text (yay dot points!), and lots of helpful visuals that enhance the research story. Evidence that you don’t have to go full rogue to make a better poster.

4. Complicated figures that make people run away scared.

Similar to using bad images, bad figures negate the point of using visuals in your poster. I know it takes added time and effort, but I beg of you to simplify graphs, charts, or other figures so that they are easily interpreted in under 10 seconds. Again, you want people to ask you questions. While you’re at it, make sure they are high enough resolution to read clearly at full size. Don’t just plop a big graph on your poster to take up space and reduce your need to come up with descriptive text. Instead, highlight just the most important or interesting outcomes of your research, and leave your readers wanting more.

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 9.51.04 AM.png
This was a poster featured on betterposters.blogspot.com, and while they gave some advice on how to improve some of the layout choices, the author did a good job of keeping things simple, putting the results up front and center with simple visuals, and even making a question box for people to leave comments.

Do you have other suggestions or thoughts about conference poster design and presentation? Leave them in the comments below!

BTW, here’s an Infographic version with the 4 poster No-No’s for those who want a way less wordy version!

ConferencePosterInfographic