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New Series: Science Communicators – Why We Love Communicating Science

Posted on 3 March 2015 by CollinMaessen

This is a re-post from Real Sceptic

Technology and the science it’s based on are everywhere in our society. Understanding science is crucial for navigating yourself through our society and taking part in the political process. Without this we can’t make sound decisions on what we as a society want to do.

It doesn’t mean that someone has to be completely versed in a scientific subject to make informed decisions. With the amount of information we have on all kinds of science subjects and what this means for the issues we face that is just not possible. Though at least a basic understanding is needed.

For scientists informing the public is not an easy job with the different levels of education and different target groups. It takes expertise and time to translate the language science uses to a more accessible form. Wording that would be perfectly acceptable among scientists could easily misinform or convey the risks incorrectly to the public.

Combine this with vested interests who actively try to misinform the public and you can have a recipe for disaster. This is why the tobacco industry successfully delayed legislation for about half a century. They very effectively used tactics to confuse the public.

It’s in this environment that a certain type of person steps forward. Someone who understands the language scientists use, who understands the evidence and research scientists use to base their conclusions on, and knows how to communicate this to the public: the science communicator.

These science advocates who inform the public and combat misinformation are a very varied group. They can be scientists or have no scientific training whatsoever. But all, for whatever reason, understand the language of science and work with scientists to inform the public. Sometimes they might be famous nationally, or even internationally, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye the Science Guy. But there are far more like Katharine Hayhoe, Phil Plait, Peter Sinclair, or John Cook who do their work more in the background.

They are the ones that create the tools and information that gets used by policy makers, in schools or to explain the science to friends. They are also often the same people who give presentations, lectures or courses that help you understand a scientific subject and what this means for us.

This can be very rewarding, but become famous or effective enough and you’ll become a target. The denial of scientific findings is very real and can lead to you being attacked. Quite viciously in some cases. It certainly can make communicating science ‘interesting’ while combatting mental processes that makes someone want to reject the science.

So why do it? Why face public scrutiny and attacks? What motivates someone to read the scientific literature and pick the brains of scientists so that they can inform the public? Why spend so much time doing that? There is a story behind every single science communicator that answers these questions.

This motivated me to write interview questions, invite science communicators for an interview, and then grabbed my camera to capture their responses. Of course I expected the answer that they love science, even if they might not be a scientists. And that they love communicating this to the public.

But they also shared stories on how and why they became a science communicator. It’s these stories that had interesting, and sometimes funny, anecdotes. Some stories surprised me with what lead to someone becoming a science communicator. In the end I walked away from these interviews with some great footage.

The first person I interviewed was John Cook. He is the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. He also founded in 2007, a website that examines the arguments of the global warming ‘sceptics’:

This was just the first video of the video series Science Communicators – Why We Love Communicating Science of which I’m going to release more videos the coming months. I already had the honor to interview several science communicators. But this is just the start, I hope to interview many more.

So who would you like to see next in this series?

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. Hi Collin,

    Thanks for this interesting piece, and good luck with the rest of the project.

    It would be fantastic to garner the views of people like Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan on the topic of deliberate disinformation, but communication from beyond the grave is still a tad on the unreliable side.

    Speaking with a UK bias, there are some candidates for your questionnaire that spring easily to mind...

    David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Jim al Khalili, Helen Czerski, Gabby Walker, Mark Miodownik, Marcus du Sautoy

    I'm sure there are many, many more, but I'm about to head off to muck out the donkeys.


    Cheers    Bill F

    PS Prof Brian Cox is the co-host on a BBC Radio 4 program called "The Infinite Monkey Cage". This involves some serious discussion on matters scientific, but with a large slice of satirical humour thrown in for good measure. It doesn't necessarily happen every time, but taking the piss out of climate change denial is part and parcel of the show's format. If you are unfamiliar with the show, it is worth trying to get hold of a podcast.

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  2. Jim Hansen… altho he has done a pretty decent job on his own.
    Nicole Hernandez Hammer

    I wish I could name a few from the conservative side!

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  3. Collin,

    Continuing with your wish list, here are some people (again from the UK) who are better known as science communicators rather than as scientists...

    Simon Singh and John & Mary Gribben (and I suppose David Attenborough would fit more comfortably into this category)

    Had he not shuffled off this mortal coil, I would have added Nigel Calder to the list, as it would have been interesting to find out what drove him over to the dark side. I still have many of his books from around the time of my university days, and, leading up to 2005, he also authored Einstein's Universe as part of the annus mirabilis centennary celebrations.

    However, he somewhat blotted the old copybook by participating in the making of the film The Great Global Warming Swindle, and, along with Henrik Svensmark, co-authoring The Chilling Stars. (The latter being a truly hilarious read!)

    cheers     bill f

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  4. blithefrog,

    Calder is like Fred Hoyle, a brilliant British astronomer, who elucidated nuclear fusion in the stars, but who could not accept the Big Bang Theory (the name he created in derision, but it stuck). He also publicly doubted evolution, and theorised that the flu virus (indeed, life itself) came to the earth from outer space. 

    It is widely believed that Hoyle lost on a share of a Nobel Physics Prize because, when his peers received their awards, by that time he had embraced too many ideas in scientific disrepute.

    Hoyle also took up writing science fiction. I never read any of his books, but I would not hold such writing against him! Maybe his voyage into the world of fiction and the imagination played tricks on him.

    Hoyle's career, like Calder, shows that eminence and brilliance are no guarantee against ending up on the scientific fringe.

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  5. Well, I'm not a celebrity and don't wish to be one, but I have been teaching a series titled: "Global Warming; Proof or Politics".  The course is about what you already know if you're signed on to SKS, but for the people who sign up with me, they are curious and generally not "convinced" either way...until they have finished the course.  Dcrickette asked for somebody from the conservative side...there are quite a few of us, but we keep our heads down.  I am a lifelong Conservative Republican, once personally acquainted with Ayn Rand, used to never vote for a Democrat until I grew tired of Republicans ignorant about climate change.  I am a former instructor of government and international politics at an obscure college in Virginia and manage an organic farm in the Alleghenies in western Virginia.  I  learned about climate change through personal experiences ferrying (flying) new aircraft to their new owners across the world.  Rest assured that there are millions of Republicans that understand the threat of greenhouse gases...but they don't like to admit it to many of their Republican friends.  Blood and politics are thicker than water and aerosols.

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  6. One name that seems to be missing from the above suggestions is Viscount Christophere Monckton of Brenchley. It would be really interesting to know why he does what he does. I don't think for one minute that he actually believes what he says, and anyway, as Potholer 54 has so clearly shown on YouTube, he contradicts himself a lot of the time. Perhaps there's money involved somewhere along the line, but would a peer, even an hereditary one who has done nothing to earn their title, deliberately harm his country for a few pieces of silver? Surely not, it might cost him his title.

    (Carefully removes tongue from cheek!)

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  7. swampfoxh@5

    I learned about climate change through personal experiences ferrying (flying) new aircraft to their new owners across the world.

    Can you be more specific?

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  8. I do understand the classical approach taken by you guys, but I'm no more agree with it. I wanted to write an answer, but the text is too long and has become an article with a larger scope.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link enabled. Please note that we frown on commenters posting "ads" for their own websites.

  9. Peter@8,

    I've read your "Meta Skeptic pledge". I think you give very poor example of an interraction with 16y old girl at a counter as your approach to science communication. Those two have nothing to do with each other. One is your frivolous entertaining desire to intimidate the girl (or even overpower her ino unjustified submission), another is a responsible job of a teacher who wants future generations to inherit his knowledge.

    In general you fail to distinguish entertainment from work, frivolous ignorance from responsibility. That does not make sense, like failing to distinguish falsehood from truth.

    So the answer to your "pledge" is: teacher A is always better when it comes to his main job of having future generations inherit science. If A realises he made a mistake at some point (no one is perfect A in a real world - we are all a mix of A+B), then he must correct his mind and his teachings, according to the requirements of his profession. An entertaining abilities of teacher B is nice and of course A+that entertaining  bit of B is desirable and better than A only, however it's only a gravy over a main meat of science accuracy.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] The tone of this comment is hardly conducive to constructive debate. Please avoid throwing accusations around.

  10. Is it fair to say that the various blogs, such as Skeptical Science, that put up posts on climate change are science communicators?  As I thought it might be I looked the 20 most recent posts on each of six blogs, three largely agreeing with AGW and three more sceptical,  and counted the comments for each of the posts.  For the pro-AGW blogs Skeptical Science had 207 comments in total, RealClimate had a total of 2565 and Open Mind atotal of 1055 comments.  This gave a  a grand total of 3827 comments from readers of these blogs.  For the more sceptical blogs, JoNova had a total of 3019 comments, Climate Etc had 8988  and WUWT 2730 This is a grand total of 14737 which is nearly four times the number of posts at the pro-AGW blogs.  

    I don't know whether or not all of the comments on all of the posts were in agreement, I doubt it, but why are there so many more on the sceptical blogs? From the numbers I think it reasonable to assume the readership of the more sceptical blogs is either a lot greater than for the pro-AGW blogs or on average, each commenter at the sceptical sites writes four times as many comments which seems unlikely    Assumingit is the readership that is so much greater why is that as the pro-AGW blogs would be expected to be the better communicators of climate science to their readers?

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  11. ryland...  I would look at those numbers more in terms of signal to noise ratios. Anti-science blogs produce a tremendous amount of noise relative to any possible signal (legitimate scientific information). You should look at how much moderation is done on each site to tamp down the noise. Most of the anti-science blogs do little or no moderation, or worse, they actually moderate out more rational discussion in favor of the noise.

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  12. Ryland posits a false equivalence, in that Ryland presupposes that the volume of comments is indicative of communication veracity. 

    In reality, in the time that it takes for Skeptical Science to pull up the pants-legs of scientific truth, the anti-science "skeptics" make up things that circle the planet 8-fold.

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  13. SkS, Real Climate andOpen Mind are better communicators of climate science. Those other sites mentioned are much better communicators of BS, the kind that rings an ideological bell with a large portion of the population. That is what their popularity is based on. Not to mention the histrionics like "we're going to hang them all" type of thing, which never fails to get the crowds excited...

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  14. ryland - It's not how loud you are, but whether or not you're heard. 

    Over the last few years I've seen more and more mainstream media (MSM) references to Skeptical Science, to RealClimate, etc, as reliable go-to sources of information. 

    And as Rob points out, the signal to noise ratio on SkS and RealClimate is worlds above that on the major denier blogs, where the comments seem to consist primarily of "yeah, me too", "it's a conspiracy", "you can't trust the scientists", repeated ad hominems, whackadoodle personal theories amounting to 'Just So' stories, and so on, rather than questions, information, or exchanges regarding the science of the opening posts. 

    Personally, I feel that that the content on the science sites is far higher than on the denier blogs. 

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  15. chriskoz,

    Frivolous person and I intimidate girls, whoua, you got my attention for sure. My answer is: you may be annoyed by the text, but there was no need to goes that far.

    I will answer any fair question regading argument in my texts.

    Have a nice day.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Agreed, lets keep this seemly.

  16. While I would agree that christoz could be a little more polite, having now attempted to read Metaskeptic's piece, starting from the opening sentence, I find it to be completely incoherent. I could only describe this as word salad.

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  17. Rob Honeycutt,

    Could you at least give one example of a sentence or a paragraph that lacks coherency? It might be really helpful. Thx.

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  18. It's word salad to me as well.   

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  19. I get the picture :D

    Now, I could bring the crouton but I would rather have an explanation. Fair enough for you?

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  20. Peter,

    You are asking people to explain why they don't understand what they don't understand, which of course requires that they understand it.  I read your post and it is very difficult to understand.  You have to take that as an honest assessment of a reader.

    It sounds like you are basically saying that we need a science that makes more of an emotional connection with people.  What that entails exactly, even what you even mean by science in this case (you seem to be using teaching science as an example), and even if I am interpreting your statement correctly, is unclear to me. 

    It probably is not appropriate on this thread to properly dissect the ins and outs of your blog post in detail. Maybe you could bring a single observation or point up for discussion?

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  21. It's not much, but it's a start. I'm grateful and won't ask for more insights, at least here.

    Thank you all. See you around :)

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  22. chriskoz,

    Twenty years of fying the worlds oceans and continents (except Antarctica) and noticing the changes would take a book, but let me describe one example:  On December 15, 1993, (very early winter), I ferried an aircraft from St Johns NFL to Cherbourg France.  The North Atlantic from St Johns to Shannon IRE was populated with tens of thousands of icebergs the size of tractor trailers.  On February 2, 2012, (quite late winter), I ferried an aircraft from St Johns NFL to Nottodden, Norway via Narsasuraq, Greenland, then Rejkavik, Iceland and on to Norway.  There were NO icebergs in that route structure until I arrived approximately 70 miles south of Narsasuraq, Greenland.  Between about 50 miles south-east of Greenland on the way to Iceland there were NO icebergs in that part of the North Atlantic.



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  23. Thanks everyone for the suggestions, I've added them to my notes. :)

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