Take Aways From Sci Comm Camp

I had the pleasure of attending Sci Comm Camp in Malibu, CA organized by Sarah Keartes, Cara Santa Maria, and Jason Goldman. There is much more to say, but this post tries to weave together the messages I took away from the experience, plus some pictures, tweets, and hopefully, some substantive answers as to what science and science communication mean in 2016 where ‘post-truth‘ was just declared the word of the year. 

I’ve been struggling with my online voice lately. I’m not sure where I fit into the sci comm universe or if what I’ve been doing thus far has made a difference at all, or if my goal of making the world less blind to plants is a mission that makes sense anymore and whether I should expand into other topics. And I have to ask if the time I put in is sufficient to stretch myself into getting better at communicating science. Is this blog improving over time?

If any Sci Comm Camp attendees want to add to this post, they are welcome to in the comments.

This post may re-assert the obvious – what science is and the role of science communication, but going back to basics can be useful, and may well be something useful to those getting into science communication. 

Tweets from Sci Comm Camp can be found in this Storify (900 of them).

Broad Messages About Science and Sci Comm

Science matters.

The scientific process yields results, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes expanding rapidly, sometimes receding and reconsidering ideas, but over time reveals a picture of nature as it is. And science is a human-driven process.

The dynamics of science and science communication are  like those of a glacier’s fragmented and chaotic progress towards the sea. It is seeded by snowfall, building up layers of compressed ice over time. However, it can also melt and recede, depending on conditions.

Building new layers of ice is where science lives, working to generate new knowledge to grow the body of the glacier. Glaciers also shift unevenly, representing shifts in scientific fields as well as scientific fields shifting relative to each other. There are also things that erode glaciers like high temperatures, and calving. In this metaphor eroding forces represent interests and forces that deny scientific findings, and sometimes can even cause less precipitation to fall, seeding the glacier less. That is, less funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

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The wall of dire wolf skulls at The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. The scientists at the museum pull out many more predator fossils than herbivores, unlike any distribution seen in nature. Their hypothesis: a few herbivores caught in an asphalt pit attract a lot of predators that would get trapped in larger numbers. Photo by Ian Street

Science communicators’ jobs are to describe the structure, borders, and consistency of the dynamic glacier that is science and its interplay with other parts of society.

The glacier of knowledge, through pursuit of curiosity,  constant testing, re-testing, and independent lines of evidence turns into solutions – sometimes to problems we don’t know we had yet. Science leaves a wake of new industries, new products, and connects people all over the world in pursuit of solutions to problems based on the natural world. Science also creates the story of nature, which is also worth telling, reflecting upon, and appreciating, as humans, all of us, are a product of nature.

At Sci Comm Camp, Derek Muller (@Veritasium) made a point to stress two things: 1. Get to the story quickly, without much lead up, and 2. Focus on quality over quantity. Ideally, that would be the case for doing science as well, though our incentives are not great just now.

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The complex system of a glacier I’m using as a metaphor for science in this post.  Holgate Glacier near Seward, Alaska. Image source, Wikimedia commons, CC3.0 by Andrewman327

Science matters to everyone.

Though not formally codified until the last few thousand years, humans have been saying “What if….?” or “I wonder….”, and “That’s odd….”, forever. These are the start of the scientific process, and one almost everyone has carried out at some point, consciously or not.

Scientists are a built in audience for science communication.

Scientists are an audience keenly aware of just how much STEM underpins civilization and builds the future, however unevenly distributed in the present. They seek to connect ideas, bring new ones into being, and continue to more finely map the natural world. And then, as accurately as possible, communicate what nature seems to be telling us based on those often hard-t0-do experiments. Scientists tend to be curious and love to learn about fields beyond their own, even if not deeply.

Journalists, especially those that focus on science as their beat, that work to verify stories, know science matters too, though are not necessarily advocates for science/scientists. They tell the stories, good, bad, interesting, funny, ugly, etc.

There are also many citizens that don’t necessarily think about science every day that know science matters. Citizens can be partners in science.

Government scientists  failed people in Flint, MI because no one listened what was apparent to the citizens: their was something wrong with their water. Fraudulent testing was revealed by the people of Flint when independent scientists partnered with them to correctly sample and test their water.

Science doesn’t know everything and likely never will, but it has taught us a lot about the structure of the natural world at scales from the atomic to the cosmic.

There are those that know science matters, but think in many ways, it doesn’t really apply to their daily lives, doesn’t immediately affect them. Or they have a vested interest in ignoring what some science has to say – the inconvenient truth – the counterintuitive, sometimes esoteric, and alien-seeming answers to questions science can sometimes provide. But there is some way science does connect, even if it isn’t obvious. Plants are a good example.

Almost everything we eat has been studied by a plant scientist to improve growth/yield/nutrition/harvestability. Coffee is popular. It is mostly not grown natively in the US. And it is a plant under threat from climate change, disease, and other pests. Coffee may soon be getting a lot more expensive.

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The view at the Nat Geo sponsored Story Collider event at Sci Comm Camp. (note how everyone is at the far side of the room during the break to stretch their legs & get another drink.  The video above is of the really cool rotating Mars table centerpieces. Photo by Ian Street.

Science as a process, as a verb,  matters.

Railing against “big science” as an institution makes sense to those denying climate change, questioning all GM technology as if it were monolithic, thinking the Earth is 6,000 years old, or being anti-vaccine. Science challenges their identity – or they think it does. Or perhaps they think science causes or will cause vacating a way of life. Science sends the message that the only constant is change in an active – and often scary – universe. Science reveals constant uncertainty that even scientists struggle with at times.

And yet, even with the uncertainty and chaos of the world, science is the tool that has delivered real and predictive ideas in many areas, an explanation for why the world is the way it is – antibiotics and vaccines treat infectious diseases, for instance. Those theories – defined in science as the most supported ideas in science – explain a lot of observations in a concise way. Science doesn’t know everything and likely never will, but it has taught us a lot about the structure of the natural world at scales from the atomic to the cosmic.

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Science and Science Communication need to be as visible as possible, like this tree on the grounds of Sci Comm Camp. Likely a species of madrone tree. Photo by Ian Street

As communicators, the stories science tells us about nature have to meet people where they are and not connect on the facts first, but leading on values and ethics, building common ground first. Finding out where people are, what they are interested in (what affects their lives immediately),  and determining if they learned anything new from an encounter with the scientific point of view is also important. Listening is an important aspect of science communication. With the glacier of knowledge science has built up over centuries, there is bound to be something extremely relevant to nearly everyone.

Convincing someone of the scientific point of view isn’t a goal to have in mind, most often. Simple exposure to science may be the goal. Filling a gap in understanding may be the goal. Or simply pointing out their’s another way of seeing the world can be the goal.

Conveying that science may be big, but is also small,  matters.

Scientists challenge ideas until it seems to make sense for what we observe in the world, and continue to push the edges,  the parts that are still uncertain, to continue to rail against some part of nature that still doesn’t quite fit with the data already present. Finding the contradictions and seeking explanation for them is a part of a scientist’s job. There may be something deeper accounting for the anomalies. This was the case with Einstein and relativity, diving deeper into how gravity works than the previous best model Newton had proposed.

The broad picture may be known, but the fine grained, specific one, is full of uncertainty. Scientists argue about those details constantly. What part of the glacier will the snow fall upon? What hypotheses pan out with many well-designed and ultimately independently confirming experiments.  

Science has built up a huge volume of knowledge and evidence about how nature works. It has allowed humans to take advantage, or to overcome, and work with natural phenomena to build our society, to provide for 7 billion people and counting.

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Science and science communication also need to be as persistent as this lone flower at the base of the tree in the photo above. Likely  Salvia chamaedryoides. Photo by Ian Street

Science communicators are critical connecting nodes between scientists and the rest of the world.

Scientists may be gifted communicators themselves which is great, however, there is still need of a diverse array of communicators to relate the stories of science. To say what we know and what we still don’t. Where we are certain, where there are solid educated guesses, and to places we just don’t know yet.

Science communication matters.

Sci comm seems to fall into a gap. Not quite (or always) science, not quite journalism, not quite marketing, not always educational, but ill-defined and therefore hard to pin down, and somewhat hard to fund. The scientific enterprise, as it should, invests most of its money in actual exploration and experimentation. Of course more funding for science, for science communication, for the scientific enterprise as a whole (& wisely invested, not just pouring money into the current structure) would help – and curiosity-based science has a good track record of returning more than is invested.

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The Pacific Coast Highway near Sci Comm Camp in Malibu, CA. Science and science communication have make images like this all the richer. Knowing the plants, the clouds, what Earth is doing, what’s under the ocean, and what happens beyond the clouds enhance our worldview. Photo by Ian Street

No one knows quite where the next great idea will come from.

The communicators of science must learn to listen to what messages people already get and where they get those messages. And if it is a source providing misinformation, need to meet people where they are to talk about that misinformation – starting there.

Not in a condescending way, but to note that there is at least an alternative way to see the world, not only one uninformed by science. Opening the door for greater understanding of science is often not easy, but it is essential if people are going to continuously support science through tax dollars.

Though basic, curiosity-driven research may seem remote to people’s everyday lives, it may be understood as a professionalized version of something most people have done at some point: “I wonder….”. No matter the line of work, people tinker and try out new ways of doing things that might be better or worse, and adjust over time. It’s building up a model of their world. The difference is scientists are trying to build a consensus picture of nature. It is a lot more complex than perhaps anyone ever assumed and it is not clear from where the next big thing will come from. 

Scientists model nature as finely as possible, and develop new tools and technologies (both low and high tech) to test our ideas against the natural world, working with our hands and minds. Through pursuing our curiosity, the  glacier of science grows and shapes the Earth (human civilization), making possible inventions like the computer and internet you’re reading these words on now. 

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The sun rises of the Pacific Coast in Malibu, CA. Seeing the sun rise again and again each day means there is a future to work towards, to build, and science has a big role to play in that process. As does science communication, illuminating what are becoming more frequent black boxes in our modern and more complex world. Photo by Ian Street.

Most scientists aren’t getting wealthy doing research. They are PhD students and postdocs, toiling away in the lab, focusing on a very small part of the glacier, shaping it by testing specific questions to generate new knowledge. Many of these questions won’t pan out. Contemporary scientists build on previous generations and one another. Generating new knowledge takes time, often 30-50 years from initial discovery to actual commercial product.

Science as a process works. Science Communication has to as well.

As a personal note, I want to thank all the attendees of Sci Comm Camp that I met and even those I didn’t that made it such a great experience. I’ve writren a more personal account on my personal blog

Again, feel free to add to what I’ve written in the comments to this post. I hope this can be a collection of sci comm wisdom from a gathering of really talented science communicators. 


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