SciCommCon 2022 Coverage Part I

SciCommBites attended the UNL Center for Science and Mathematics Education’s SciCommCon 2022: Sharing Science in a Polarized World – here’s some highlights from this conference.

TL;DR: Many aspects of our society stand in the way of sharing science – we're more online, we're more polarized, and we're more disconnected. Here are some sessions from SciCommCon in building better connections.

Why I chose to attend SciCommCon: Our world has never been so connected – it’s also incredibly divided. As communication gets quicker and science gets more politicized, it feels like every Tweet, talk, or conversation has the potential to go viral in a bad way. At SciCommCon 2022, I gained new insights in how to connect with new audiences in meaningful ways and create a welcoming, equitable, and empathetic environment in my scicomm.

Systemic Racism in Science Communication

In January 2020, the Associated Press ran a photo of Greta Thunberg and fellow climate activists at the World Economic Forum. Shortly afterward, however, Thunberg lambasted the AP: they had cropped out Vanessa Nakate, the only activist of colour in the photo. This injustice is not an isolated incident in the sciences or in how science is communicated. In this Systemic Racism in Science Communication (scicomm) workshop, Dr. Dione Rossiter outlines ways in which systemic bias hampers our scicomm practice, reasons why it is more critical than ever to include marginalized voices, and strategies for combatting systemic racism in science communication.

A myth of scicomm hinges on a fundamental assumption that the public cares about the science as much as the scientists. Take, for example, climate change: scientists and scicommers alike are discussing the merits of climate action legislation and talking about carbon credits – but 38% of Americans are still questioning whether or not climate change is even real. This is not the public’s fault, Rossiter asserts, but the responsibility of the people who haven’t adequately communicated the problem. As scientists, we have an obligation to inform the public? – so why are we falling short?

Male reporter interviewing male subject while cameraman films
Messages are shaped by how they are communicated – and who is communicating them.

Rossiter argues that the problem in connecting with the public lies in the systems in which scicomm is entrenched, from how we communicate, to who is communicating, to whom we’re communicating with.

How: Publications remain the key avenue of sharing new scientific research, and an estimated 28,000 scientific papers are published each year. In the States, however, 54% of adults read at a 6th-grade level; and digital media, watching or listening to the news, has far overtaken reading it.

Who: Newsrooms tend to be uniform: only about 13% of newsroom staff are ethnic minorities, and less than 40% are women. Rossiter notes, however, that the interns being hired are more diverse than the people who actually work there.

Whom: Studies on who consumes science news is flawed. For example, studies that cite college-educated blacks as less scientifically literate than college educated whites overlook a major flaw in their survey: who is writing the tests? These practices, to name a few, have institutionalized bias and exclusion, which warps the perception of who gets to participate in science and scicomm.

Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) (please define) scientists face systemic racism in the sciences – so what are the incentives for BIPOC people to participate? First, science – and scicomm – is not objective or neutral, but is shaped by the culture and society that is participating. More than anyone else, members of a community are best equipped for outreach reach to their community.

Second, increased participation from marginalised groups can dismantle what Rossiter calls the hierarchy of credibility: those with high social status get to define the rules of the systems we work under and get to be considered authoritative. BIPOC scientists and experts challenge these systems and can ultimately work to undermine them, thereby reshaping what we consider “authoritative.” This is important and meaningful work that can have a lasting impact on defining who a scientist can be, but this impact depends on how willing people are to participating.

Given the pressing importance of dismantling systemic racism in scicomm, what are some ways we as anti-racist allies (who is referred to here?) can promote diverse voices and make our scicomm more inclusive? Rossiter provides eleven key tips:

  1. Participate! Showing up and actively working toward an inclusive scicomm practice is a critical first step to actually creating one.

  2. Support & encourage fellow scicommers working to dismantle systemic racism – this is not something can be undertaken alone!

  3. Learn about the different forms systemic racism can take, and how they impact intersectional identities.

  4. Reflect on power dynamics in existing organisations and structures. Who is making the rules? Who has the power to speak up and challenge the status quo?

  5. Promote community involvement in scientific research.

  6. Keep community research and outreach focused on what those communities actually need.

  7. Utilize existing infrastructure – rather than trying to build something new, tie in resources and support services already working with the communities you want to reach!

  8. Collaborate with experts and local leaders in these communities.

  9. Focus research on underrepresented/under-resourced groups – bring research and science to the communities who need it!

  10. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to build the trust and meaningful connections that are critical to community-based research and outreach.

  11. And finally, embrace the discomfort: this is a learning process, and incremental improvement will come slowly. But these transient growing pains will only lead to a better, brighter, more inclusive future in scicomm.

Depolarizing Within for Science Communicators

There’s an old adage about the three topics you never bring up in polite conversation if you want things to remain civil: politics, religion, and money. In our current political climate, where even the validity of verifiable facts becoming politicized, calm and productive conversation seems ever more out of reach. In this workshop, Dr. Beth Malow and Dr. Steve Saltwick from Braver Angels share some best practices for how we as science communicators can start depolarizing our conversations.

Depolarization is a technique that aims to bring down the temperature of a conversation and diffuse tension between groups that may disagree. For science communicators, it’s a critical tool for engaging with people who are skeptical of science. But polarization arises not only from engaging with people outside our belief groups, but also by fostering negative attitudes toward people in conversations with our peers through stereotyping, dismissing, ridicule, and contempt. Malow and Saltwick call these the “Four Horsemen'' of Polarization.

Thumb up and thumb down
Assumptions about and dismissal of people who disagree with us distort our perceptions of them – and can turn disagreeing opinions into arguments.

Since polarization starts within, it’s also critical to begin depolarizing internally. Malow and Saltwick recommend starting by examining your own “inner polarizer” – what biases and stereotypes do you hold against people skeptical of science? They then share strategies you might try to counteract these polarizing attitudes in yourself:

  • People are more varied in their life experiences and hold more complexity in their opinions and beliefs than their rhetoric implies. Developing relationships with people who disagree with you can lead to more impactful conversations – you’re talking to a person, not a political argument.

  • Make depolarizing distinctions: you can disagree with a position without stereotyping all the people who hold it. Similarly, you can agree without someone on your core values but disagree on what policy should be enacted regarding those values.

Just as the way we think about “the other side” creates polarizing attitudes, so does the way we talk about them. Malow and Saltwick urge scicommers to avoid pejoratives, generalisations (like “they all…”), and criticizing motives over ideas – an uninformed person or a person who mistrusts science isn’t necessarily a bad person! Critiquing “our side” and saying something positive about “their side” can feel like giving ground in a battle, especially when we are discussing scientific facts, but it can also go a long way in creating a healthier, less warlike conversation. For example: acknowledging that science is a confusing process and highlighting concerns about the transparency in which research is conducted is a valid critique in science communication; admitting it won’t damage your validity, and may make someone distrustful of scientific research more comfortable in listening to you. Consider how a skeptic might view your conversation: do they feel respected or disrespected? Heard, or ignored?

As we depolarize ourselves, we should also work to depolarize our in-group, or “our side.” We don’t want to propagate polarizing viewpoints, but we also don’t want to sound like we’re defending anti-science rhetoric. This needle can be difficult to thread, but Malow and Saltwick have a four-step strategy, LAPP:

  • Listen to the other person: what emotions are feeding their polarizing rhetoric?

  • Acknowledge what you can agree with (you likely share the same concerns!) while avoiding stereotypes yourself

  • Pivot the conversation with an I-statement that provides an opportunity to discuss an alternate perspective (example: “I read a really interesting article on why people might not trust science – can I share it with you?”)

  • Perspective: introduce a depolarizing view to the conversation.

Malow and Saltwick note that depolarization is a learned skill which takes both time and effort to master. Not every conversation will be depolarizable – someone might not actually agree to pivot the conversation, and you shouldn’t push it. But don’t give up: depolarization is a long game, and it has practical benefits. As Maya Angelou put it, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” By changing people’s hearts, we can work toward actually changing their minds.

Communicating Science in the Age of Social Media

With all the variety in formats, platforms, and content creation available today in social media, it can be a bit daunting to figure out where – or how – to even get started. In this keynote, Darrion Nguyen shares some tips, tricks, and best practices to create science content for social media.

Before content creation even begins, a communicator should understand the platforms themselves. Not all platforms are equally distributed in audience or in content style: attempting to reach young people on Facebook in 2022, for example, will largely be unsuccessful. As with other forms of communication, effective social media scicomm requires a communicator to meet the audience where they are.

Megaphone with smartphone and pencil, magnifying glass, lightbulb, and YouTube play button
Social media is a great tool to reach people, but different platforms require different approaches.

In addition to finding the target audience, Nguyen advises finding a target medium. Effective content creation is just as much a feature of the style of content as it is the actual content itself, and understanding different methods of conveying a message will help tailor content creation to a platform.

This is necessary for two reasons: first, different platforms favour different content styles – Twitter is the domain of writers, Instagram the graphics generators and visual storytellers, and YouTube the vloggers and video essayists. Second, and equally important, one form of content creation may suit a creator better than another. Nguyen personally prefers video making over writing, and has consequently tailored his presence to TikTok over Twitter. A communicator doesn’t need to be proficient in every form of content, but they should know what type of content they like to make and are effective at making.

Often, however, discussions of content creation on social media become cynical conversations about gaming the algorithm, maximising metrics, and hunting for that ever-elusive virality. Nguyen strongly cautions against this attitude; while there is no harm in using YouTube best-practices to increase viewership, developing a routine on Instagram, or jumping on TikTok trends as inspiration for making a new piece of content, science communication needs to start from a place of authenticity. At its core, social media’s purpose is to create community. So don’t worry about going viral, Nguyen advises – post the things you want to post, if for no other reason than you want to post them. The community will come to you.

Short Talks

On the Seventh Day, God Created Science

In his address at the launch of the JWST, NASA administrator Bill Nelson quoted Psalm 19, a passage from the Bible – a move which many derided as anti-scientific. But is religion truly antithetical to science? Depending on the definitions you use for “science” and “religion,” Adam Shapiro shows there’s a significant amount of overlap. In this talk, Adam Shapiro outlines the religious history behind science communication.

At the core of many religions is a creation story, or an explanation for how the universe came into being. Creationist ideologies are often pitted against scientific evolution, but Shapiro argues that they are not necessarily incompatible – nor have they always been understood to be incompatible. Evolution itself could be seen as creation by incremental change, versus creation by intelligent design. In essence, then, science can be understood as the means by which God has created the universe, rather than an opposing way of viewing the world. This framework can lead to nuances and new viewpoints in theological understanding.

But do science communicators need to believe theology – or attend seminary – to do science communication in religious communities? No, Shapiro notes, but we should understand and appreciate religious beliefs. Often, religious people are told that they “can believe in science and still have religious values,” as if religion is something to merely tolerate in scientific spaces. Shapiro argues that religion should be celebrated in science communication. Rather than pitting science and religion against one another, scicommers have the opportunity to engage religious communities in scientific research through positive argumentation on how science can benefit their world, support their faith, and benefit and uplift their community.

Making Sense of a Complex World: System and Network Mapping as a SciComm Tool

In this talk, Crystal Powers, the Research & Extension Communication Specialist at the Nebraska Water Center, shared some tips on how to visualize vast and complex networks for science communication. Not all projects are easy to understand at a glance, and many have many moving parts – Powers points to systems thinking, a mode of analysis that looks at a system as a whole rather than as individual components. Systems thinking works on the large-scale, can connect values to one another, and can create a roadmap for telling an interesting story. Additionally, systems thinking is easy to visualize through software like Kumu or Loopy. A systems map can convey a lot of information, from interdisciplinary relationships to shared missions, through directional arrows and coloured blurbs, while also providing a holistic overview of the complexity and scope of your project.

Finding our common thread through conversation

In this talk, Dr. Nadine Vincenten, a research fellow at the Personal Genetics Education Project (PGEd), shared her group’s outreach into community-based education on genetic technology. Their mission is to increase awareness on genetic technology, foster thoughtful discussion on how it should be used, and give communities the tools to make informed choices about genetic tech. PGEd goes to where the people are, and has conducted programs in churches, schools, community organizations, online, televised events, and even in Congress. Although these avenues of outreach are all very different, Vincenten highlights some commonalities in how these spaces can be effectively shaped: first, DNA is an excellent way to connect everyone, as everyone shares it. Second, creating a “brave space” through a community contract implemented by everyone in attendance can support universal, equitable participation, thereby providing as many viewpoints to the discussion. This method allows PGEd to engage and educate a myriad of groups.

Overall, these sessions at SciCommCon highlight different strategies to personally connect with communities in an increasingly disconnected, polarized, and impersonal world.

Edited by Jacqueline Goldstein

Images by geralt and kreatikar (via Pixabay) and Redrecords (via pexels)