One Last AAAS Post

I’m finally getting a chance to write up my last day at AAAS. This should wrap up our descriptions of the conference.

The day started out with another of a more science oriented panel, and took a slightly different perspective on the conferences theme of building bridges between communities. This session was jointly organized by AAAS’s math and biology divisions and looked at how mathematical modeling can be applied to different levels of biology. The first two speakers dealt with larger scales, the first to model the spread of HIV in Botswana to help determine the most effective way to introduce preventative anti-retroviral treatments to at-risk groups. The second speaker was looking at the spread of the H1N1 flu in Mexico, specifically how it is related to transportation networks. After this the panel switched to a much smaller focus, with Gerda de Vries describing her work figuring out how different ion channels can work together in neurons to result in rhythmic oscillations in electric potentials. This was a nice lead in the the last speaker I saw, Philip Holme, who looked at the physical processes in the brain that are involved in decision making. While there were still two other speakers after this, I left early to make it to another session that was also looking pretty appealing.

This was “Warriors against Claptrap: The New Generation of Civic Scientists” organized by Sense About Science. The panel was made up of Michael Hanlon, a science writer with the Daily Mail, Kiki Sanford, who writes the blog Bird’s Brain and is involved with the podcast “This Week in Science”, and a representative from the Voice of Young Science network, a branch of Sense About Science, Daniella Muallen. This network is meant to help young scientists confront examples of poor science that we encounter all the time because. Examples of their work can be seen on this section of their webpage. This group is mainly based in the United Kingdom, though apparently they’re interested spreading more internationally.

This was listed as a workshop, and as such after short introductory talks by each of the panelists, it was opened up to the audience for discussion about how as scientists can be effective at engaging people about these kinds of issues. The discussion seemed to mostly center around two ideas. First was the question of how much all the new resources that people have available to learn about science actually reach beyond the people who are already interested in the subject. On this subject I fall somewhere slightly on the optimistic side. While I think a lot of people tend to not pay a lot of attention to science, there’s also a lot of opportunity to engage with people once you can get their attention. The second idea that came up in the discussion was what kind of engagement is actually effective. The consensus seemed to be that it’s a mistake to approach people with an attitude of “we’re the experts so you should pay attention to what we’re talking about” and it’s more effective to try and help people develop the ability to critically evaluate ideas. Daniella pointed out that this was the approach that Voices of Young Scientists took with their reports. She mentioned that most of the people involved weren’t necessarily experts in the relevant fields, but are still in the position of being able to explain the scientific process that can be used to evaluate claims. This leads to the reports being presented as what kinds of simple questions lay people should be asking about the products they’re using. I think this panel led to a pretty interesting discussion, and seemed a good way to finish up the conference sessions.

After that I spent the rest of the day at our poster session, shown below. Overall the time spent at AAAS  was pretty informative and enjoyable. Hope you all appreciated the perspective.