About a week ago FOSEP members got together to talk about scientific communication, a topic that was one of the most requested from our members. In particular we discussed the distinction between climate and weather. The Polar Vortex has kept the East Coast and Midwest frigid Meanwhile, on the West Coast we are in drought conditions. Some counties in Oregon have already declared drought conditions, while parched Northern California has finally seen some rain. On my recent snowshoeing trip to Mt. Rainier (which are being used to illustrate this post), snow level was below “low” on the mountain.
Two Wednesdays ago a group of us FOSEPers met to discuss the book Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson. As the title indicates, the book is a collection of letters in the form of chapters, written so that each chapter can be read separately without losing much context. In each chapter, Wilson touches on a specific aspect of science and intersperses his ideas with many examples taken from his own experiences. Those examples range from those as a young child from Alabama out collecting insects to those as a young scientist in training to those as a mentor of young scientists, but they all involve ants in one way or another. Wilson’s enthusiasm for ants definitely comes through in his writing, as well as in the small illustrations that start each chapter. Some chapters touch on scientific advice, such as why it’s good to work on projects that no one else is looking, while others discuss science as an endeavor, as why science may be a more encompassing approach to seeing things than the social sciences or humanities.
Last week Abbie, Renee, and I had the chance to discuss during the book Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty by William Byers. According to the preface, “This book will demonstrate that our understanding of science is simplistic and thus inadequate to the task at hand… Most of us assume that science is monolithic – science is science is science – but this book will demonstrate that science carries within it diverse tendencies.” The simplistic understanding of science as just a body of knowledge, termed the “science of certainty” by Byers, views science as a pursuit to rid the world of uncertainty. Byers argues that this approach does not acknowledge the “blind spot” in science, which is the inherent ambiguity that exists in science (I will not try to attempt to explain this ambiguity, since I still do not have a clear understanding of it). Byers, however, provides an alternate approach to science that is driven by the sense of wonder (or the mysterious), which he terms “science of wonder.” As Byers notes, “the one crucial difference involves their attitude toward uncertainty and incompleteness.” While the “science of wonder” is born out of uncertainty and mystery and therefore accepts them as part of nature and science, the “science of certainty” attempts to rid of the uncertainty. If any uncertainties exist, the “science of certainty” views that more science can help remedy that uncertainty. Using these two ways of viewing science as a starting point, Byers dives into many nuanced interpretations of the role of meta-concepts in science, such as subjectivity, objectivity, unity, and ambiguity.
Now, unlike previous recaps of books that I’ve written in the past, I want to take this idea of how science grapples with uncertainty and see its applications to when science is communicated to the public. While it may be a simplistic way of looking at science, I think that the division of science between the “science of certainty” and the “science of wonder” can be used as a lens to look at a) science education and b) the application of science in policy.
Last Thursday five of us (Abbie, Phil, Sara, Aomawa, and I) met at Schultzy’s to talk about Marc Kuchner’s book Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times. The main feature of the book was what scientists can learn from looking at science from a marketing standpoint. I can see many scientists cringe at reading the word ‘marketing’ used in context of science. And all of us who were at the book club agreed. To varying degrees we all felt uncomfortable with the idea of marketing ourselves, our research, or science in general. To clarify what he meant by ‘marketing’ Kuchner defined it early on as, “the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them.” It doesn’t sound so bad if you put it that way, and we all agreed that framing our scientific endeavors in terms of this definition marketing can help us communicate our science effectively and help us build fruitful and long lasting scientific relationships.
The author Marc Kuchner is an astrophysicist who works as a staff scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. What makes Kuchner unique is that he’s also a country music songwriter. Many of his anecdotes naturally relate to his early experiences visiting Nashville and trying to get his songs picked up by musicians and connecting them with the experiences of an early or mid-career scientist trying to establish a career in science. These stories, intermingled with advice on how to improve our website, grant writing, conference, etc, made the book very readable, and many of us at the book club found it a nice break from the dense writing of scientific articles.
After discussing the book for a couple hours, jumping from one part to another, we realized that because the book covered a wide range of topics, we all got something different out of the book. To give a taste of what we talked about, we discussed about following up with fellow colleagues after meeting them at a conference, writing grants for science funding, creating our own Signature Research Idea (SRI), making our own logos (maybe), revamping our websites, and much more. The book approached all these different parts of scientific life by framing either ourselves, our tools and questions, our proposals, or our websites as our products, which we provide to our consumers, the people we wish to interact with, and asking the question, “What’s in it for the consumer?” We already do this when we try to give interesting talks or write clear results in our papers that we hope can be of help for other colleagues. The book just asks us to take it further, perhaps a bit beyond our comfort zone.
The book could have used a bit more proofreading (a number of typos), and there were a couple advices that seemed to go beyond what the five of us would be willing to do, such as one on giving talks and anticipating negative preconceptions that the audience may have of us at the beginning of our talk and acting or saying things to break those stereotypes. We thought it was disingenuous to do so, especially if we weren’t being ourselves when combating the stereotypes. But overall, I think we all thought that the book was helpful and useful. Given it’s title, I was a bit reluctant to pick up the book and read it, but now that I’ve read it through, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a way of looking at what we do as scientists.
Do you have any book suggestions for the next book club?
Last Tuesday we discussed Nancy Baron’s book Escape from the Ivory Tower for our FOSEP book club event. We were lucky to have Liz Neeley, who contributed to the book and works at COMPASS with Nancy Baron, join us in the discussion. She was very helpful in answering questions we had on the topics and issues covered in the book. Broadly summarizing, the book is divided into four sections: why scientists should/would want to communicate with the media or with policymakers, what cultural differences inhibit clear communication between scientists and media/policymakers, how scientists can improve their ability to communicate, and how to approach backlash and challenges.
I especially appreciated the numerous real-life examples that contextualized the main points in each section. One idea from the book that had a lasting impression on me was that each encounter is different (different context, different audience) and no step-by-step instruction can ensure clear communication of your science. The thing that’s most important is to properly prepare each time beforehand so that I know why and what I want to communicate. And it was nice to see in the real-life examples how each step in the preparation led to a specific outcome.
One nice tool that I discovered in reading the book is the message box. The message box is a really neat tool to summarize the essence of your research, especially when it comes to communicating to your audience and to yourself what your research is about. By filling out the message box and refining it, you can even find a previously unknown way of looking at your research.
There are four boxes to the message box. In the middle is the “Issue” section. Surrounding the “Issue” section are four other sections titled “Problem?”, “So What?”, “Solutions”, and “Benefits”. Quoting the book and a handout on message boxes, each of the five sections ask five different questions:
• Issue: In broad terms, what is the overarching issue or topic?
• Problem: What is the specific problem or piece of the issue I am addressing?
• So What?: Why does this matter to my audience?
• Solutions: What are the potential solutions to the problem?
• Benefits: What are the potential benefits of resolving this problem?
As Nancy Baron mentions in the book, these are more like guidelines, which can be changed to fit the situation/audience. It is a useful way to simplify all the ideas in your particular paper or body of research. It’s especially useful for a starting point when coming up with an elevator pitch summarizing your research and its relevance and benefits.
For those of us with research topics that are more on the basic side of the basic/applied spectrum, the “Solutions” or “Benefits” section may look difficult to fill in. For me, the question was, how does knowing the particular mechanisms involved in drizzle formation in clouds over the open ocean have direct benefits to our everyday life? During the discussion Liz Neeley suggested that if we were stuck in such a rut, then we should take the long view and fill in the “Benefits” section with a vision for the future i.e. with the knowledge we can obtain from answering my specific problem, what large overarching question can we ask and answer?
So far I’ve worked on one message box for my current research, but I can see how I’d have a collection of multiple message boxes for different audiences. My guess is that my message box for a second grader would be drastically different from my message box for a policymaker. I can also see how the message box can very helpful in the grant and paper writing process.
I enjoyed reading Escape from the Ivory Tower, and among many other things, it introduced me to the versatile and useful message box. Do you have suggestions for what to read next for our book club?
2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize of Marie Curie. There have been many women who have made significant contributions to science, but there continues to be a gender gap in many scientific fields.
Check out this link if you are interested in resources for women in science.
For anyone interested in joining us for our next FOSEP Book Club Discussion, please read this book and join us at:
The Pub at Ravenna Third Place, 6504 20th Ave, Seattle (Downstairs from Third Place Books and Vios Cafe)
Thursday January 20, 2010 at 7:00 P.M.
Participation is completely voluntary, but as a participant we request that you read the book, bring some discussion points (likes/dislikes, agreements/disagreements, other relevant material, passages to be read aloud) and think of book titles for the next book club. I have really enjoyed past book club meetings as it provides us with a chance to hold discussions on topics relative to our Forum in a depth which doesn’t happen on many other occassions. Following the discussion on Science is Culture, we will select the title for the next book club, so please be ready to pitch for the book you would like to read so that the group may come to a popular consensus based on the best recommendation.