Going straight to the source for science communication

Going straight to the source
(from undergraduate dissertation)

Polonius: Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: your noble son is mad. Mad call I it, for, to define true madness, what is’t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.
Gertrude: More matter, with less art.
Polonius: Madam, I swear I use no art at all!
(Shakespeare, 1603)

The bearers of news are not always so adept at getting to the point and sticking to it. The Internet is rich with opportunities for scientists to share their work directly with the public by cutting out the middlemen, and an increasing number are taking advantage of this (Brumfiel, 2009; Colson, 2011; Dean, 2009; Kouper, 2010; Trench, 2007). This allows scientists to sidestep collaboration with journalists and the media, and allows the public the same option from the other end (de Semir, 2010; Laslo, Baram-Tsarabi, & Lewenstein, 2011).

Could this be a more effective type of science communication: reducing the role of journalists, science writers and public relations people, and having scientists communicate directly to the public?

More matter, with more art
It may often seem that the public are presented with a choice between either a more interesting but less factual journalistic style, or a more accurate, and objective, but less engrossing scientific style. However, the public currently have access to science communication which comes directly from the scientists themselves, and is just as captivating and engrossing as any media sensationalism.

While the Internet may be a platform for denialism and sensational journalism, it has also been used by scientists to tackle them.

The Conversation is a website that seeks to share science news and stories through “academic rigour [and] journalistic flair” (The Conversation. 2015). The title of this study asks if scientists should be journalists – here is a source of science news where you must be a member of an academic or research institution in order to be a contributing author. Similarly, the website Futurity shares the latest research coming out of top universities, linking each article to the original study. Its only support is its university partners, and its aim is to “share research news directly with the public” (Futurity, 2015). Other websites tackle specific issues. Earlier in this study, the denial of anthropogenic climate change was looked at, and how the media fuels and provides a platform for it. Real Climate is a website which provides climate science from working climate scientists not only for the public, but for journalists as well (Real Climate, 2015). While Real Climate does not become involved in discussion over the politics of climate change, Climate Central provides news and reports on the science of climate change alongside looking at “its impact on the American public” (Climate Central, 2015). This website employs both scientists and journalists, demonstrating that the communication of science to the public does not have to be from only one of either scientists or journalists.

Since 2005, the video sharing website YouTube has become one of the most used and most successful sites on the Internet (Green & Burgess, 2009). Some science communicators, both individuals and organisations, have begun to utilise YouTube as a tool for science communication and education on a broad range of topics. They use a combination of visuals, audio, narration and animation, along with interviews and question/answer formats (utilising the comment section to involve the audience).

On the YouTube homepage there is a list of suggested links, titled “Best of YouTube” (YouTube, 2015a), one of which takes you to a selection of educational channels. There are sub-headings for humanities, history, business and a number of others, one of which is science. Following this link provides videos made by institutions such as the University of Oxford, The University of Toledo, and the University of Bristol (YouTube, 2015b). There are YouTube channels dedicated to educating on the subject of science. SciShow uses videos of anywhere from five to 20 minutes to tackle subjects as diverse as robotics, biology and the history of anti-vaccination thinking (evidence of these channels being key to fighting the kind of denialism highlighted earlier). Crash Course, as the name suggests, aims to give short videos aimed at providing an overview and provoking further interest in chemistry, ecology, physics, and branching beyond science into history and literature. The Brain Scoop uses the platform of the Chicago Field Museum to educate on anatomy, biology, ecology as well as museum studies, using a behind-the-scenes style approach to provide insight into how museums are run. These channels reach substantial audiences.  The Brain Scoop has reached over 265,000 subscribers, but with total views reaching close to 10 million, since 2012 (The Brain Scoop, 2015). SciShow began only a year earlier, in 2011, and has since amassed over two and a half million subscribers and more than 268 million total views (SciShow, 2015). Crash Course has been around since 2006, and in that time has gathered over 2.8 million subscribers and 201.6 million total views (Crash Course, 2015).

Two other YouTube channels worthy of note are those of The Big Think and TED Talks. These both use a format of having various speakers on a wide range of topics. The Big Think provides videos of around five to 10 minutes in length, where people such as Sam Harris, Bill Nye and Michio Kaku share their expertise and opinions directly with the audience. There are also lengthier videos designed in more of a lecture style. Aimed at helping people to move “beyond random information, toward real knowledge” (The Big Think, 2015a), there are over one million subscribers, with total views reaching 115. 6 million since 2006 (The Big Think, 2015b). The YouTube channel for TED brings the conference-style talks that TED is known for, and provides them to those unable to attend these events. A “nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas” (TED, 2015a), it has reached over three million subscribers since 2006, but 100 times that number in total views (TED, 2015b).

These YouTube channels may be more of a second step, once interest in a subject has been kindled elsewhere through other means, such as the classroom or a book. However, the fact that the number of views for these channels is higher than the number of subscribers suggests that they are not solely preaching to the already converted.

There have been studies done on the logistics of YouTube (see for example: Cheng, Dale, & Liu, 2008; Davidson et al., 2010; Gill, Arlitt, Li, & Mahanti, 2007). Jones and Cuthrell (2011) have looked into the use of YouTube in schools. But beyond this, studies could be done on the long term educational impact that these YouTube channels have on their audience, and how effective they are as science communication. These could be modelled after studies done on the educational impact of zoos and museums.

A more traditional (and offline) method of science communication is through books, and these can be traced back to the periodicals of the 1800’s (Sheets-Pyenson, 1985). The best of these present scientific findings and information through narrative drama, with a point of view and scope that will keep readers engaged (Dean, 2009). The nature and style of books means that they lend themselves to explaining and conveying science, allowing for long, multiple-layered explanations and analogies (Turney, 2007). Cosmos (Sagan, 1980) tells the story of the universe and our place in it. The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976) tells the story of natural selection from the point of view of the gene. The Third Chimpanzee (Diamond, 1992) tells the story of the evolution, history and future of the human animal. They all tell the story of science. These scientists bring their work and that of others out of the realm that most scientific research is shared in, where the only audience is other scientists and is written only in their language (Dean, 2009). They encourage interest in science, particularly with students in schools (Austin, Menasco, & Vannette, 2008).

Any one of websites, popular science books or YouTube channels as science communication would (and should) make for an interesting study of its own. This section highlights how each is a potentially excellent opportunity for science communication, and how they will be important going forward.

What could go wrong?
Scientists communicating directly to the public can potentially hinder the communication of science, often in unexpected ways. Here is a recent example:

In November of 2014, the European Space Agency’s [ESA] Rosetta spacecraft detached its lander, Philae, which managed to successfully land upon a comet as it entered the inner solar system (ESA, 2013). This was part of the final stage of a ten-year long mission, and one aspect of the news surrounding it was the pride and joy of the team of scientists leading the mission. Naturally, a number of journalists interviewed members of the team in the hours immediately after the confirmation of the landing came through. Given the live-update nature of a lot of the coverage of this story, initial interviews were very spur of the moment, as journalists wanted to convey to the public another, more unseen side of science: a real breakthrough moment, coming after a decade of hard work, experienced by a group of people who are excited by, enthusiastic about, and thoroughly enjoy their work. The comet landing was a perfect opportunity to do this, and in large part it succeeded. One interviewee was Matt Taylor, the Project Scientist appointed for the mission. Down to earth (ironically…) and enthusiastic, Taylor was the perfect candidate for an interview to communicate to the public the Rosetta mission and its importance. Take this quote from his team member page on the NASA website for the Rosetta mission:

The opportunity to work on Rosetta was huge and I cannot begin to describe the excitement associated with this mission. It really is just so cool. Previous missions have only flown past comets. For the first time we will fly with the comet and actually land on it! The Rosetta mission is a breakthrough in space science and exploration and really demonstrates what international collaboration can achieve.
(Taylor, n.d.)

Sincere and relatable, connecting the public to scientists such as Taylor is a crucial aspect of science communication. So why hesitate?

During interviews, Taylor wore a shirt that subsequently drew a lot of attention and criticism, and caused a great deal of offense to some members of the public, due to the allegedly sexist nature of the graphic design. Type ‘comet landing’ into the Google search bar and the second suggestion is ‘comet landing shirt’ – appearing above ‘comet landing news’ and ‘comet landing live’ (Google UK, accessed 2015). Search for ‘comet landing shirt’ and there are 415,000 results, consisting of blogs and news articles either defending or attacking the shirt and Taylor himself, or summarising the debate (Google UK, accessed 2015). When adding the search terms ‘comet landing shirt’ and ‘comet landing news’ to Google Trends (a website that can be used to explore the public interest in a topic over time using search history), the results show that stories relating to Taylor’s shirt peaked at 100 around the day of the landing (November 12th, 2014), at which time stories for ‘comet landing news’ hit only 24 (Google Trends, accessed 2015).

Whether or not the design of the shirt is damaging to women (and whether those who took offense ought to be more concerned with issues such as the male: female ratio on these missions than a shirt worn clearly in bad taste rather than misogyny) is irrelevant here. What is clear is that Taylor himself, quite understandably, gave no thought to what he was wearing during the interviews or how it would be received by the public. Had a PR person been present, or had Taylor been more versed in the media and public relations, a simple change of shirt would have been made prior to the interviews and the subsequent focus would have been entirely on the mission, its success and the positive depictions of these scientists.

The shirt controversy did not prevent excitement and interest in the Rosetta mission, and by no means did it overshadow the news coverage of the landing and its continuing progress in the long term. Overall, the live-update and straight-to-the-source nature of the coverage of the Rosetta mission was a very positive example of science communication, exciting and informing many on a topic that may have never crossed their minds before. But it does highlight the fact that there are things that may seem trivial, or are simply not thought about in the first place, that can hinder and harm the successful communication of science to the public. Many of these things will not be apparent to scientists who have no experience with or knowledge of the media and public relations. Particularly in the modern Western world, a huge challenge is to communicate to a diverse culture without polarising or offending (Medin & Bang, 2014). Whether or not a shirt is worn as a genuine expression of sexism, people must be more aware of the cultural aspect if they wish to communicate effectively. This is not an endorsement of mass censorship and denying freedom of expression, but in much the same way that people will adapt their use of expletives depending on their expected audience, this is an example of other considerations that need to be taken into account in this day and age.


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