7 Qualities of a Respectful SciComm Community

This was originally a guest blog I wrote for shareyoursci.com. They’re a great site for science communication resources, so you should go check them out!

The theme for the 2019 Science Talk Conference in Portland, Oregon, was ‘Community’, a fitting topic considering how quickly the field of science communication is growing and evolving.

Science communicators engage with both science and non-science communities, and must be adept at maneuvering between the two. But what about the SciComm community itself? How can we nurture a space where science communicators of all kinds can feel connected and supported in their efforts? The importance of building a strong SciComm community—one that welcomes diversity and practices inclusion—was the focus of much of Science Talk.

Many of this year’s presenters talked about the qualities that they feel define a strong community, and these same qualities were discussed in the workshop I led on the second day of the conference. I’ve distilled these qualities down to seven key components of a successful community, which just so happen to spell out the acronym R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

respect

1. Representation

Keynote speaker Maryam Zaringhalam addressed the question of who speaks for science head on. “Representation is a big problem in SciComm,” she said, encompassed by sexism, racism, and elitism.

Most people immediately think of Bill Nye when they hear the term ‘science communication’. Many of us have cringed at being called “the Bill Nye of…(fill in the blank)” or “the female Bill Nye”, as if this one well-known (white, male) person sets the standard for what a science communicator looks like and acts like. Nothing against Bill Nye—he’s done a lot for SciComm—but its problematic that other types of SciComm identities and perspectives may be considered less valid or visible in comparison.

Representation is important because we all need to be able to see ourselves in our community, be able to relate to others, and feel confident in our individual identities.

2. Empathy

This is a huge one for me. I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our societal problems, from political polarization to the detrimental “war on science.”

While as science communicators our goal to responsibly present science by being transparent, and often objective, we must also recognize that we are all driven by personal values. If we can’t acknowledge and respect the values of those we are communicating with, we will likely fail to reach them or build lasting relationships. We need to be able to empathize with others, even if they hold different values than our own.

As many presenters at Science Talk mentioned, being a successful science communicator means being a good listener. Listening to your target community is a big step toward making meaningful connections. Indeed, if you can connect with that community based on some shared values or goals, they are much more likely to be receptive to new ideas. This extends to our own SciComm community too; we should be able to respect that we each have valid experiences and perspectives.

3. Support

We all want to feel supported. How do we create a community where we can effectively support each other? Susanna Harris, founder of The PhDepression website and social media platform, spoke to this in her talk about creating online communities. According to Susanna, a successful community is a place (virtual or otherwise) where you gain something by participating, but also feel responsible for the wellbeing for other people in the community. It’s a place where we lift each other up and feel mutually supported, where we can celebrate our differences while recognizing what binds us together.

4. Protection

I’m not talking about Godfather-style mafia protection, but a strong community should create a ‘safe space’ where its members can be themselves without being judged or harassed. For science communicators, having a strong community means that your peers have got your back when you are attacked by trolls or abusive voices.

Building a community where members feel protected involves creating rules and guidelines for that community that establish a foundation of respect and inclusion. Panelist Sarah Myhre emphasized the importance of creating safer institutions where women, ethnic minorities, LBGTQ+ individuals, and others are free from abuse and prejudice. Without safe communities and institutions to support us, she argued, how can we focus on being successful communicators, scientists, etc.?

5. Equality

In a similar vein, equality is critical to maintaining a community where members feel like they can contribute effectively without bias or prejudice. Many Science Talk participants spoke about their experiences as minorities being blocked by gatekeepers to media, journals, institutional leadership, or other avenues of power controlled by non-minorities.

The tide is slowly turning in some institutions where leadership and participation is diversifying—but we still have a long way to go. Creating a strong SciComm community will require conscious effort toward supporting equality, diversity, and inclusivity; and as Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan (founders of Girls Talk Math) mentioned in their presentation, this in turn will help diversify science more broadly.

6. Connection

A common thread among Science Talk presentations was the important role of storytelling in connecting with your audience. We all have personal stories, and sharing those stories helps us connect with others—whether they are part of “our” community or one we are reaching out to.

As one Science Talk audience member said to panelists, “I want to know your personal story, what got you here, what kept you going. I want you to go beyond reason, and into emotion.”

Hearing how others overcame obstacles (internal or external) to get where they are today helps inspire us and connect us to each other. Many presenters emphasized that a “successful” SciComm interaction means making a meaningful connection. This applies both within and between our communities.

7. Trust

Finally, any community must be built on mutual trust. We must be able to trust that we have each other’s best interests in mind, are willing to support each other, and that our communication is based on integrity. Just as we as individuals want to be considered as trustworthy sources of science information to our audiences, our community should reflect this same trustworthiness by upholding the values we feel are important for respectful scicomm.

Just A Little RESPECT

Feeling supported, connected, and heard are the things that lay the foundation for effective science communication (or effective anything). It was encouraging to hear such wide consensus among SciComm-ers of all kinds about the need for building a community based on mutual respect, where we can boost each other and in doing so boost ourselves and raise the bar for SciComm as a whole.

While the seven elements I outline above are relevant to any community, there are a few additional qualities identified at Science Talk that are particularly important for catalyzing our science communication community: namely, enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

The youngest presenter at Science Talk this year was Parin Shaik, a freshman in high school who participates in the Science & Us SciComm program led by and for high school students. She described how entering the world of SciComm helped her overcome her fears about studying science, and opened up a world where “Sailor Moon and photosynthesis can co-exist!” In other words, SciComm allowed her to integrate her love of art and entertainment with her interest in science. She found her enthusiasm.

“Make your enthusiasm for science contagious.” Encouraged Dianna Cowern, YouTube’s “Physics Girl”, who gave the final keynote address. Her talk galvanized participants into celebrating their curiosity and making it ‘go viral’.

I think this is one of the things that I love most about our growing SciComm community—our common enthusiasm for and curiosity about the world around us, and our passion for sharing what we learn with others. In the workshop I led, participants described their aspirations for a strong SciComm community. You can review the list of aspirations and measurable results we came up with, and even contribute your own, on this google doc. I hope that the ideas captured in this document provide a basis for ongoing conversations about the qualities we want our SciComm community to embody into the future.

I hope we can use the elements of RESPECT to create a space where science and scicomm welcomes everyone. As Maryam said in her keynote, “the greatest asset we have is our community.”

Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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