Tell stories. Science has amazing ones to tell. And it’s not just of the science itself. Scientists themselves are fascinating as well. The stories of how science intersects with society, government, and the world are fascinating as well. The science and facts won’t speak for themselves, so at least some scientists, and all professional science communicators, journalists, policymakers, and citizens must do so — the good, bad, neutral, the odd, the fun, all of them. Stories convey values. Science has good ones to convey. Stories have a beginning, middle (where something happens/changes), and an end. Though science is never actually finished.
Humans are the story telling animal as one of my writing teacher’s Sarah K. Peck put it. Another point she made is that stories are what humans carry with them — what they remember after an interaction with another person. Communicating was a major theme of the AAAS meeting in Boston this past week. There were also important images like this shared as part of the science at the conference:
Yes, this is the best image of the mysterious object scientists had for a long time, even with the advanced tools available. Getting this image was generously funded by the US taxpayers and they need to be part of the loop to know what scientists do with the money. Since World War II, when (Republican) Vannevar Bush worked to start the National Science Foundation, government funded research has been a good investment for the economy, innovation, public health, and generally improved the quality of life of the American Public. It has accelerated the rate of change in technology and is behind so much many of us take for granted. Curiosity-based, basic research can sound silly, until it suddenly isn’t.
It all starts with a “I think…”, or “I wonder…” or even “That’s funny….”.
The amazing effectiveness of science doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with or within science and things that scientists need to do better. There are some bad incentives that aren’t necessarily good for scientists or doing of the best science. Science funding IS competitive, however. That is one hallmark that has remained constant and does ensure ideas that get funded are of high quality, as determined by peers.
There does need to be more inclusion in STEM as there are lots of underrepresented groups in academia still and that is a problem. AAAS addressed this in one obvious way by having plenary lectures by AAAS President Barbara Schaal, Naomi Oreskes, May Berenbaum, and S. James Gates Jr. The President-elect of AAAS is Susan Hockfield, former President of MIT. In terms of modeling who scientists are, it’s a step in the right direction.
S. James Gates, Jr. used the example of last year’s LIGO direct observation of gravitational waves to note the vast expanses of nature the scientific process has given us a picture of. Detecting ripples in space less than a proton in width that originated 1,600,000,000 (billion) light-years away in the vastness of the universe. Those still show limits and boundaries of exploration, as the 2nd image above shows as well. But science can measure uncertainty and give quantification to how certain we are and take what we do know to informatively design new experiments to learn even more about the focus of study.
Curiosity-based, basic research can sound silly, until it suddenly isn’t.
Some of those boundaries in science are getting science’s stories to audiences beyond scientists and getting those audiences to take something meaningful to them away from having spoken with a scientist. It means listening more to non-scientists, hearing what their concerns are, and understanding the stories they have. It is then a matter of showing how scientific discovery can enrich their stories, give them new aspects of stories they hadn’t considered, or see how they fit (& most often they do) in some way into science and what they might do with that information.
What the heck is that horrible pixelated image? Have you come up with ideas yet?
Basic (or foundational) science has brought us a long way like nothing else. It is the base of the pyramid to eventual scientific applications. And of course applying science can inform basic research as well. It isn’t easy or fast. But over time, decades, it’s transformed the world. It’s enabled deeper understanding of much of the natural world, even uncovered and expanded things that exist. Gamma rays to radio waves, atoms, quarks, distant galaxies, gravity, the theory of evolution, bacteria, viruses, and the interconnectedness of it all.
Scientists take for granted that the scientific process is universal and knows no national borders – just like nature. Depending on the scientific question or problem, details and norms differ, but the process of starting with a testable question, getting a result, and following the data is universal. It all starts with a “I think…”, or “I wonder…” or even “That’s funny….”. It then requires checks to make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves, something else science has revealed about our base senses and brains, that they have limits, and brains pay more attention of narrative/identity than numbers and data. It’s what scientists do in a specific way: tell stories that fit the data, but then go a step further and put that narrative to the test. If a story is untestable, it is outside the purview of scientific inquiry.
Kishore Hari (@sciencequiche) told scientists in a session on communicating science to not be such a scientist sometimes. Not to take away expertise, but to put it aside for a few minutes to listen to non-scientists and engage with them and see where they are, perhaps even design a science-based activity around specifically what an audience might want to hear. This might be more easily done by those specializing in science communication rather than an individual scientist with specific expertise, but listening to an audience isn’t ever going to hurt.
Hari also asked a question in a workshop about how we know if an engagement activity was effective or not. How do you know if your writing, hands-on activity, or video had an impact? Some of this needs to be thought about before planning an activity, but not all of it can be. Looking at numbers, doing surveys and asking people for their impressions after an event can all be ways of seeing an impact. However, there are intangible impacts that are extraordinarily hard to quantify. If an event tipped a child into a later career in science and they then invent something world-changing. That is an impact too that cannot be taken into account in the short-term. Similarly, the impact of science on society is often not acute or immediate, but happens over decades and science as a community lurches forward, working hard not to fool ourselves that the results of an experiment are real when they aren’t or vice-versa, and checking them with multiple studies, often from independent means. Science is messy, but uncertainty is measurable, and generally shrinks over time.
Have you figured out what that pixelated image above is yet?
Science can sound esoteric or silly. Especially science that is organismal in nature; as Patricia Brennan said about her work: “everyone knows what a duck is, everyone knows what a penis is…put them together, haha”. And an important point is that silly sounding science can seem like entitlement or privilege to those struggling to pay their bills. The products of basic science make their way into products and services we pay for, eventually ending up tending cheaper as they scale and become more widely distributed. However, even as products scale, distribution may well be uneven. And something that goes well beyond science, but may be informed by it, is ensuring some minimal level of prosperity for all.
Science provides great stories as we go further in exploring the natural world, bringing it into ever finer resolution, and asking for better evidence every step of the way.
I can’t speak for all scientists, but many (including me) express gratitude that they get to do what they do every day. Though scientists may be at the tip of experiencing awe and wonder of the unknown while exploring nature, they are not exclusive feelings to scientists. Even simple things like the sun rising every day is actually pretty remarkable when realizing that things had to come together just so 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system formed to have a planetary system that orbits the sun forged by gravity and kept in place on seemingly invisible orbital tracks. Of the over 1,000 exo-planets (planets orbiting other stars), as far as I know, we’re still looking for a planetary system that resembles our own. In that sense, Earth is special.
Another theme is just how interconnected the world science reveals is. I’m a plant scientist and though few sessions focused explicitly on plants, there were several sessions, policies, and basic science involving them. It was reported at the AAAS meeting that the hypothesis that human’s color vision was selected for was supported because our primate ancestors with good color vision could identify fruit faster than those with only two types of color vision. Arsenic can get into plants as the plant mistakes it for silicon and there may be ways – crossing in genes from rice plants that don’t take up as much arsenic, or through advanced gene editing techniques. Sea grass meadows improve water quality and combat dangerous bacteria, a reminder why maintaining a good environment helps. And The Salton sea’s only present water source is agriculture run off and it is receding and getting more salty as it evaporates. Right now, only Tilapia live in the lake, though it is also a stop off point for migratory birds and if it’s allowed to fully dry up, salt dust from it can spread and worsen air quality for a huge part of California. 99 percent invisible did a great episode about it and it was interesting to hear from S. Drew Story, a poster presenter at the conference who was assessing how well the Salton Sea conservationists’ message gets through. May Berenbaum talked about saving pollinators, honeybees specifically, is directly relevant to plant life and agriculture (she mentioned several likely and less likely contributors to colony collapse). And President Barbara Schaal and several contributors to the National Academy’s GE Crop study talked about the report and about how much attention it got. The session on Phytobiomes also underscored just how connected the world is between plants, microbes, animals, and climate.
Last Chance. File your guess as to what that pixelated image is now before the reveal.
AAAS President Barbara Schaal stated in her talk that the case for basic research needs to be made again and again as it is not always obvious the line that seemingly undirected research programs lead to discoveries that generate new jobs, industries, and change our lives. She asked scientists to be a force for science in the world, as the AAAS has been for a long time. For the small number of the world’s population that are scientists, we do have an outsized effect in moving the world over time. Archimedes is reportedly said with a big enough lever and a fulcrum to put it on, he could move the world. Scientists have done just that too, working as – and within – a community (the lone genius is truly a myth), seemingly playing with silly things from the outside, that have revolutionized civilization.
Nearly any science can be made to seem frivolous or silly, as Maria Baldwin showed in a slide in her talk on Silly Sounding Science:
However, curiosity-based science is not silly. It only can be made to seem so until it suddenly isn’t. Many bacteria have regions in their DNA that repeat followed by a variable sequence followed by a repeat and on, and on. It turns out it’s a way to protect them from viruses. So what? Why care that bacteria have DNA that helps them destroy viral infection? This is CRISPR. That scientists are now using as a precision gene-editing tool of great consequence. Those surviving bacteria are also part of an environment, and matter for their part in the ecosystem too.
Exploration, the story of seeing things up close for the first time and revealing it to everyone else inspires wonder and keeps humans going. We’re the story telling animal and we need new stories to tell each other. Science provides great stories as we go further in exploring the natural world, bringing it into ever finer resolution, and asking for better evidence every step of the way.
Pixelated photo credit: From Alan Stern’s (@AlanStern) talk at the AAAS meeting. An image of Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, the best image of Pluto we had until New Horizons flew by in 2015 (@NewHorizons2015). Stern noted that there was data from even that image that was published on, and that was part of getting New Horizons green lit as a mission. Via NASA.
*Any of the pictures used here are ones I took of slide presentations. If any of the presenters don’t want their slides used here, I will take the images down and find alternatives.
2017/02/22: This post has been updated to correct a few typos and add Twitter handles to photo credits.
Further reading/coverage of the AAAS meeting:
@Steph_Guerra_ Storify on the #scicomm take aways.