Posts Tagged 'Science Communication'

More outreach and communications

So once more I’ve been doing outreachy stuff that’s not just the Musings and so want to spread the word on the off-chance that some of my readers will want still more Hone-generated ramblings.

First off, The Lost Worlds over at the Guardian still keeps on going and I’m still posting material there regularly. However, they have just updated their name and so any old links may no longer work and so you’ll be wanting to use this link now and update any you have on your own blogs etc.

Second, I recently did an interview for the Jersey Boys Hunts Dinosaurs site, talking about my research and the advice for students and young researchers hoping to break into palaeo.

Finally, I recently sat down the people from Faculti Media. This is an interesting new concept where they create short videos of researchers talking about their work to provide a platform for outreach. It was great fun to do (but tricky, although edited, it was close to being live with only a couple of takes at the thing) and I think it offers a new approach with nice little bite-sized chunks of science explained by the researchers. In my case, it was on sexual selection and socio-sexual signaling in dinosaurs and it’s come out quite well, (though clearly the camera was focused on the background, not me, whoops!).


Science communication and fossil preparation

As part of my travel to Canada for the Project Daspletosaurus work, I attended the Fossil Collections and Preparation Symposium hosted at the Tyrrell. Obviously I’m not much of a preparator, but after getting through the mammoth Gorgosaurus prep stuff with Darren Tanke, there was obvious scope to talk about sci comms in general and what we’d done with the field of preparation specifically and how me might go about improving that. All of the talks were recorded and have now gone up on line. There’s some cool stuff like removing old consolidants  or microvertebrate screening, so hunt around on the Tyrrell’s YouTube channel, so it’s well worth having a look around, there were a ton of talks.

Reaching further out

The Musings has indeed been unusually quiet of late and my normal daily post rate has fallen away considerably. This is due to a number of factors, though I’d have to admit that the main one is simply not having much to write about. A contributory factor has certainly been that I’ve also been penning a couple of pieces for the Guardian website (here and here) and the fact that I had to prepare for, and then go to, the Cheltenham Science Festival.

Those outside the UK might well not have heard of this, but as things go it’s a fairly prestigious event and I was delighted that my application to do some kind of event through Ask A Biologist. So this morning, four AABers assembled in Cheltenham. Here was me, Paolo Viscardi (of Zygoma), Alice Roberts (you know, her off the telly) and David Wynick (or, err, AAB really). In front of a panel of about 150 kids we attempted to tackle everything that they could throw at us.

Overall, this worked really well and I was delighted with the result. We all managed to get a good bit of ‘air time’, each had questions that spoke directly to our specialities, and we managed to get through quite a few questions, but gave each the time it needed to provide some long and occasionally complex answers. Speaking personally, despite the large number of dinosaur talks and Q&As I’ve done recently I still managed to get two questions I hadn’t had before which at least made for some novelty.

One aspect of it at least was simultaneously great and terrible. It was terrible that there were a couple of rather leading / insinuating questions that basically started from the premise that evolution wasn’t true. However, it was great that they were prepared to ask a team of biologists this and that we could speak to them about this and correct their misunderstandings and try to present the evidence.

So all in all we had the chance to reach a wide audience and hopefully both answer some nagging questions, provide a little inspiration and show them a bit of the scientific method as well as the breadth of biology as a field and the people who work in it. We’ve already had some very positive feedback, so I’m comfortable we did a good job. It is nice to get out and do something beyond the web and reach out a little further and this was a fun event. I hope it’s the first of many.


Catch 22

While the aquatic dinosaurs nonsense certainly united palaeontologists in their dismissal of the ‘hypothesis’ it also caused something of a split. Discussions both public and private went around about how to deal with such an issue. It’s a fundamental problem with bad science and anti-science and while it’s a fairly obvious one, it is worth laying it out. In short, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and has spread to a significant number of the public via the media, there is no obviously good way of tacking the problem.

Option 1 is quite simple – ignore it. It’s bad science, it’s wrong. Sooner or later most people will simply forget and move on and many will recognise it as being wrong.

Option 2 is to counter it. Show why it’s wrong and why the good science is right.

This all sounds rather reasonable and not too tricky and either way, the good science should shine through. The reality though is all too different and in fact dealing with it is a catch 22. Follow option 1 and you will find a good number of people will, years later, still think this thing was true. They heard it, absorbed it, heard nothing to contradict it and so assumed it was right. Even if it sounded dodgy, they do now have two (or more) competing ideas in their heads and might not be able to say which is right or better supported. If you do nothing then bad ideas can fester and it can be triumphed by some as a victory with the scientists too cowed to reply.

Acting may not help much however. Assuming you can even reach many or the same people as the original story (the media rarely publish retractions, don’t tend to give replies the same airtime or print space, and will come later) you may convince few. Simply continuing the discussion gives a sense of validity to an idea that it shouldn’t have simply by arguing with it and keeps things going longer than they should.

So it is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some favour the ‘let it lie’ approach and others the ‘get good info out there’ (like this for the aquatic dinos at least). Not surprisingly I tend to favour the latter with my overall approach and attitude to science communication, but it’s not a blanket one. There’s no need to devote time and effort to disprove every bit of silliness that appears online and in the media, if no one has seen it, it’s not even an issue. But for me, major stories do have an impact and I’ve too often seen people cling onto things and think of them as genuine simply because they were reported and while it might give a nonsense piece a little of the oxygen of publicity, providing a well-directed and decent sized dose of science will probably reach a few more people and more than offset the damage.

The real solution of course is for idiots to spot pushing BS as science, the media to stop reporting BS as science and to make everyone scientifically literate so they know BS when they see it. In the absence of solutions to those trivial problems however, we have to do the best we can, even if we can’t always agree on the best way to do it.

To help or best left alone?

I’ve recently spent a bit of time on a variety of dinosaur / palaeo sites frequented by kids and those with no more than a very casual interest in the field. One common feature of these is the often profound lack of accuracy heralded by various posts and comments (though often to a very enthusiastic reception). As someone who obviously works on dinosaurs, but moreover has a strong interest in science communication and the public understanding of science this leaves me with some questions about what, if anything I could (or should) do about this. I thought therefore I’d pen this little note and see what people think and especially ask about experiences you had in building towards an interest in the field.

I’m not advocating any strategy myself. I’ve recognised this issue for a while and have done nothing partly out of not being sure if I should even do anything, but also a lack of time to invest in any potential intervention. I’m simply trying to lay this out as what I see as a dilemma and use that as a springboard for further discussion. As I see it there are two obvious and basic things that can be done and each has its problems and benefits.

The issue is that these people (and mostly young-ish kids through to teens as far as I can tell) are often badly misinformed (for whatever reason) about the real facts of dinosaurs and / or research. They don’t have access to the literature (or are even aware it exists) and are reliant on intuition and whatever sounds good over what is right (or probable). While there are good books out there and obviously blogs and websites where anyone can engage with real practicing scientists, these sites tend to be rather enclosed with people only interacting with each other and so getting endless positive reinforcement for their ideas with no real outside input or criticism.

Now I don’t expect them to be scientists (hell, I wasn’t aware the literature existed till I was an undergraduate, and didn’t know what it really meant for some time after that). However, if they are as interested as they seem to be, it would seem to me a good thing for me (or people like me) to try to intervene and help them along the road towards more knowledge and a better understanding. However, that is likely to be a lot of work (answering a colossal number of questions, trying to boil down difficult concepts, arguing over points etc.) and this is likely to do little more than upset many of them or put them off science and scientists. Maybe I’m not imaginative enough but it seems hard to try and do this without divesting them of a huge mountain of nonsense and beloved theories etc. and that’s not likely to go down well. They might be much better off being left alone to mature and develop and if they have a real interest in the subject, they will come to read deeper and better and come around to a better understanding and real picture of dinosaurs and research.

On the other hand, starting them off early with some real information and ideas about science might get them there much sooner. Some, even many, might be inspired and interested and advance much faster. They might also drop some of the negativity that I can often experience in occasional blog comments etc. when people come over with very fixed ideas that must-be-right-because-they-say-so type things.

In short, it is better or worse to try to help out / intervene / interfere?

Will they be put off and annoyed by big-shot scientists pointing out their ideas are nonsense (however nicely), or will they be thrilled to engage with real experts and push themselves to do better? Will they get better on their own eventually or should they be helped? And if we do this, will it be a huge amount of work for little thanks or benefit, or really bootstrap a few to a new level of interest and understanding?

Obviously this is going to vary from person to person, but I’d be most intrigued to see what people think, and what experiences they have had at various times in their lives as experts, or with encountering experts. Did this help or hinder? Were your ideas well received or did they result in tears and tantrums? Did you grow up isolated from real experts and found your ideas changing as you learned more, or were you stuck in a rut till someone helped you see the light?

Some ‘Ask A Biologist’ outreach

My once ‘little’ project, Ask A Biologist is now grown fat on well over 4000 questions and continues to grow ever bigger. However, that rate of expansion has never been quite what I hoped for and I continue to try and push it in ever bigger and more effective ways. This has to be done on a budget, what with this being basically a voluntary and unfunded organisation and all. Still, we recently did splash out a bit of money to have some professionally made posters and leaflets produced. These look rather better in their These look rather better in their PDF forms (available to download below) than the included jpegs but I am eager to get them out there so here they are.There’s a poster (that should be good up to A3) and two flyer designs (A4 double sided). Flyer A has a ‘reversed’ front page so it can be folded as a nice small leaflet to distribute, and the type B has not so that it can be folded, or just left as a single A4 flyer.

Also included below are a bunch of various poster designs and logos or banners. Please take any and all of these and print them up, post them online, e-mail them around or whatever. Just get them to people or give them to people, kids, teachers, educators, whatever. Obviously we simply want to promote the site as far as possible and we think we are doing a good job, but with more people finding us, we can do a better one and you can help.

Anyway, download, link-to, post, print, encourage and enjoy. Thanks.

Flyer A

Flyer B

AAB Poster

AAB art – first poster

Some time ago I alerted people to the need for Ask A Biologist advertising material and that the Art Evolved guys had kindly asked their contributors to pitch in. In all the tyrannosaur kerfuffle I hadn’t overlooked the fact that the first one has been submitted. David Maas (to whom I now owe much alcohol) has sent in this superb effort that combined everything I was hoping for, it’s simple, clean, bright and fun and get’s the point across wonderfully. My thanks to him and I’m hoping for many more.

Exploring and explaining Ask A Biologist

By now I expect all of my regular readers are familiar with my Ask A Biologist site and the general aims of increasing science education and communication to the general public by professional researchers and experts. While this has now been ticking over and doing pretty well (as far as I’m concerned) for four years (wow, that has flown by) it has never really grown substantially. This is a bit annoying but not the end of the world, there are limitations to what you can do on a shoestring and relying on the goodwill and time of your contributors and friends and colleagues. All things considered, I think we’ve done a superb job, even if I am saying so myself on my own blog.

The latest step we have taken is to write up our experiences and the pros and cons of such a site and it’s machinations and we have been able to publish in the recently launched Evolution: Education and Outreach journal. It’s an obvious outlet since they are really all about science communication and bridging the gaps between academic research and teachers (and by extension the classroom)and that is what we are trying to do ourselves.

(As a quick aside, it was very quick and easy to publish here and I thoroughly recommend it. If you have burning sci comms issues you want to get out there and reach a big audience properly, it’s excellent. So get on and do it).

The paper is a short one and tracks the history of the site and what we have learned and experienced through running it. We are a bit unusual in that we are really independent of any university or society and don’t have any formal organisation as such. Things kinda just get done and if things don’t get done, either someone picks up the slack or complains till other people pitch in. This of course means we do have complete freedom to run the site as we see fit and it keeps costs down and stops time getting wasted on meetings and updates etc. On the downside, group apathy can set in and some things really don’t get done if they are never that urgent or that important, and it’s easy for a few of the more active people to dominate proceedings.

Even so, we think this is a successful model for others to follow. The whole site has been set up, run (and undergone a major redesign and facelift) for four years for just over 3000 pounds – that’s an incredible return. We have provided a real service which is slowly becoming more widespread in it’s influence with other sites now making use of our answers as a source of information and more teachers coming to us to help with questions from their pupils and for bits of information for their own lesson plans. We seem to be having the effect we always wanted and that’s a good thing. Hopefully this paper will go a little way to help push that still further and help us reach a still larger audience.

Of course you dear reader can help with that too with a bit of judicious blog posting, linking, mentioning this to your kid’s school, cousins’ science teacher, local nature club, or whatever. We are making a small difference and you can help us make a slightly larger one, so please help if you can.

Hone, D.W.E., Taylor, M.P., Wynick, D., Viscardi, P. & Gostling, N. 2011. Running a Question-and-Answer Website for Science Education: First-Hand Experiences. Evolution: Education and Outreach, in press.

The basics of science communication

Recently I’ve been buried even more deeply in sci. comms. stuff than usual. Aside from the various media appearances I’ve made of late (and in addition to the visible ones, I’ve had a fair hand in a few others you’ve probably seen) I’ve also been writing up a proper piece of work on the actual process of science communication and it’s place. Obviously this is something dear to me – while I do like blogging, the reason I do things like the Musings, AAB, and others is that I want to communicate about science because I think it is important and valuable, and I moan about the media so often because they seem to hinder more than they help despite the latter apparently being their aim. Bearing that in mind, here are a few very brief points I would recommend to bear in mind when doing media work of any kind (aside from the obvious like being nice):

Always flag up and correct errors. People might well ignore your corrections (perhaps even justifiably in some cases) but people cannot learn if they don’t know they are wrong. Explain the problem and as best you can how to fix it, or ways around it.

Keep things simple and clear. Given that you never know who might read your quotes, or what was based on your ideas, you pretty much can’t underestimate your audience.

That said, don’t be afraid to aim high. If you build up carefully, explain the terms and use good analogies, you can cover some quite complex things effectively. People will learn and understand more than they expected and that’s great.

Prepare in advance as far as possible. If you’re just helping a journalist out with some background reading or answering some questions then take your time. If you are doing radio or TV then try to get the likely questions in advance. Plan your answers, make notes, find out what they do and don’t want. Practice if you can.

Try to avoid clichés so you don’t sound dull. But be aware that they can be powerful tools. Sure it’s boring to only talk about T.rex, but if you want to get the idea of a theropod across to a very broad audience in a few seconds then this will do it.

Try to give more than is required or asked for. Especially when advising people for articles rather than in interviews give more. You might well provide things they didn’t know they didn’t know and prompt new and better questions and lead things into interesting new areas.

How much science communication should / do people do?

I’ve recently finished the final throes of a major grant application to keep me employed beyond the end of my one year in Dublin (good luck me). As part of this I had to complete a fairly significant section on what effect this research will have (if funded) on UK culture and how I would go about communicating this effectively to the public. This is a pretty standard form and would be completed in some way by most people applying for science funding in the UK (as far as I can tell). This has apparently only been on the books for the last couple of years, but one would expect that UK researchers would therefore be burying the world in their sci comms stuff in the next few years and the process should have started if every one of them has to do more outreach as part of their grants.

And yet….. Look, I know it is tough to find time to do science communication. Not everyone likes it or is good at it. The media can be indifferent to your work no matter how exciting you (or other researchers) might think it is. There are lots of ways of getting the message out there beyond a blog, newspaper articles etc. and one 5 minute spot on national TV reaching a million is arguably better than a thousand blog posts read by the same 1000 people. There are also lots of little things that can go unnoticed like consulting to a TV show or article, doing talks in local schools, designing a museum exhibit, and so on, which are easy to miss but are every bit as valuable.

However, I can’t help but suspect that this is simply not the case and that people are not doing have as much as they could or indeed should. If the UK science councils are really serious about this kind of thing then where is all this extra stuff? As I say, I might be missing loads by mistake, but (and I’m trying *really* hard not to be self-aggrandising here) I seem to produce more science-comms stuff than some entire departments. If everyone is effectively contractually obliged to go out and do much more science communication work than before, then were is it all? OK, it will take a while to kick in as more people get these grants and fulfill their commitments, but surely this should have started by now.

I’m not suggesting everyone *should* do lots of this kind of work. Not everyone does have time, not everyone enjoys it as much as I do. For that matter, I don’t actually think that it should be a requirement of the job (or a grant). But, and this is the key point, if you are going to at least partly base the criterion for receiving funding on the quality and amount of science communication then it would be nice to see that this is really the case and that this in enforced in some way. If those are the rules that are being set and the demands that are being made, then I’m unconvinced that I have seen the outcome you might expect from it yet. From the outside (and I freely admit I could be profoundly mistaken) it does not look like people are doing what is being asked, indeed demanded, of them.

The next few years are going to be very interesting, and hopefully, very productive time for science communication in the UK. I’d also be intrigued to know what experience my colleagues in the UK and abroad have had of these systems. Are the enforced? Do they even check what you did? Are they even considered important in the review process? Any comments will be most welcome.

Quick post on science education

This is a very nice opinion piece from Robert Winston. Short, to the point, lucid and clear. He emphasises the importance of science and technology in the modern world and by extension covers the critical nature of science communication and the public understanding and appreciation of science. Well said, and words that need to be said more often.

Constructive criticism, absence thereof

There is, let’s face it, a pervasive and annoying trend on the internet of instant dismissal and disparagement of anything someone doesn’t like or disagrees with. While I have just about got to grips with that as a fact of life for most of the web, it is frustrating and irritating when certain people do it about certain subjects.

I came across a comment on a science blog the other day where someone had linked to Ask A Biologist (which was nice). It was not at all clear if the comment that followed was direct to AAB or another site given how the thread was running, but that’s none too critical here. The substance of it was that said commenter has seen an unnamed science education website and thought much of their stuff that covered his field of research was inaccurate and badly handled.

Well, that will help eh? I mean, you know, you *could* communicate with that site yourself and let them know that they might have problem. You could send them some better information so they can make some corrections. You could put them in touch with colleagues who might help out. You could offer to help out yourself. But no, helping out is not right for you. Don’t worry that others are doing all the work on their own time and money to try and do the job they can and might not be perfect, just sit back and tell them that they are going a bad job and that you know much better and that other people should not use that site as it’s not very good.

Well thanks for that. It helps no one a single iota (since nothing will be fixed or can be fixed if there is no more information forthcoming) and spreads unnecessary criticism and disharmony among your colleagues (imply the site is badly done and the people involved unqualified or ignorant) and the people who might use the site. So every single aspect of that 2 line comment is not only not helpful, but actively unhelpful. Nice. I’ve remarked before just how welcoming and helpful the average scientist is and how respectful they are of the expertise and efforts of others be it from a senior professor to an undergraduate, or vice versa. It is then especially unwelcome and indeed unbecoming of people to put up comments like this, and while it might be the norm for the internet, it’s not the norm for conversations between researchers (or comments left by researchers) on the internet, and soon may it discontinue.

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