We live in interesting times…times when misinformation, alternative facts, and opinion carry equal or more weight than empirical data. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not fed streams of misleading information in order to push a particular agenda, regardless of whether that information bears any semblance to reality (see for example, vaccination safety, GMO safety, climate change, or evolution). This drives me crazy! And I can’t be the only one who struggles with the rise in anti-intellectualism and mistrust of science and scientists. How often have you found yourself reading a science-related news story or a social media post about science and something in the details is amiss? Perhaps a concept is misunderstood, or a particular fact is spun in a way that misrepresents the science or scientific theory? Or maybe even the very definition of scientific theory is misconstrued? It is precisely these times when the American public needs to hear from an #actuallivingscientist.
The internet and social media are far-reaching platforms for communicating and advocating for science. Yet many scientists have avoided engaging the public online. This lack of engagement is partly due to an assumption that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible. Science is concerned with objectively observing natural processes, whereas advocacy is inextricably linked to subjectivity and a desire for the way the world ought to be [1-3]. Some scientists worry that engaging in advocacy will harm their credibility as objective or impartial scientists, even though data suggest otherwise . Because of this apprehension, only a few expert voices are communicating science to the public and policy-makers in language that is accessible, leaving space for misinformation in fields like healthcare, climate science, and evolutionary biology. And as scientific fields continue to increase in complexity, the American public—whose tax dollars fund federal research grants—is left behind.
A lot has been written about the importance and effectiveness of science communication through social media. A great way to begin learning about how and when to engage is to read the work of prominent bloggers like Dr. Paige Jarreau at Louisiana State University. In one particular piece from her blog, From The Lab Bench, Jarreau outlines the effective ways she uses social media to communicate about science, ranging from blogging and Twitter to Instagram and Google Docs. This particular blog entry is an excellent primer for launching a science communication social media campaign. But perhaps social media is not your forte (c’mon, let’s be honest–you’re reading a blog right now!)…
So, what to do if you are a scientist who is leery of engaging in #scicomm with the public through social media and the internet? Why not engage through traditional print journalism, instead? Try your hand at writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper in response to a published story or op-ed. Letters to the editor (LTE) provide an excellent opportunity to tackle a misconception/misunderstanding, and also provide a springboard for pivoting to address a bigger picture. And because LTEs often have a strict word count, they force you to make your point using concise language – literally distilling your message. The American Geophysical Union provides an excellent resource for writing letters to the editor, which can be found here.
Feeling even bolder and want to do more than write a short LTE? Try pitching a story to the science desk at a major newspaper. A recent piece in the Washington Post by Dr. Holly Dunsworth at the University of Rhode Island takes exactly that approach to point out common misconceptions about evolution, as embodied in the words of our 45th President (and a ghostwriter) in Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life:
“The women I have dated over the years could have any man they want; they are the top models and the most beautiful women in the world. I have been able to date (screw) them all because I have something that many men do not have. I don’t know what it is but women have always liked it. So guys, be cocky, confident, smart, and humorous and you will be able to get all the women you want. … We may live in houses in the suburbs but our minds and emotions are still only a short step out of the jungle. In primitive times, women clung to the strongest males for protection. They did not take any chances with a nobody, low-status male who did not have the means to house them, protect them, and feed them and their offspring. High-status males displayed their prowess through their kick-ass attitudes. … They did not give a crap about what other people in the tribe thought. That kind of attitude was and still is associated with the kind of men women find attractive. It may not be politically correct to say but who cares. It is common sense and it’s true — and always will be.”
Dunsworth takes apart Trump’s misunderstanding of human evolution and competition piece by piece in her response, while simultaneously making the case for broadening diversity of perspective and experience in the study of human evolution. Simply put, her approach is masterful and we can all learn a lot about how to effectively engage the public in science communication through storytelling and connection to an audience. In particular, these excerpts resonate with me:
“This just-so story about men, women, sex and success may fit with many people’s impression of human evolution, but it contradicts the actual science… In every human population around the world, men are on average larger and stronger than women, as is the case in most other primate species. This is often explained by sexual selection for male dominance, that is, male vs. male competition for mates. So, in the past, bigger, dominant males fought and scared away smaller ones and had more opportunities to mate with females. As a result of their relatively greater reproductive output, the genes of these males got passed on at a relatively higher rate than the genes of the smaller guys. This process was enhanced by female preference for making babies with these bigger, stronger, dominant males.
Presenting a human evolutionary narrative over and over again in which male competition and female preference are the explanation for big, strong males is too narrow, too simple. It reminds me of when students claim that their B in my human evolution course is keeping them off the dean’s list, but their transcript isn’t exactly straight As. There’s usually more to a story.”
Dunsworth goes on to paraphrase work by the famed primatologist Dr. Sarah Hrdy, which turns the same theoretical framework around and asks the question why so many female primates aren’t as big as males (or even bigger), since females compete too:
“Like most girls, I reached my maximum height years before my male friends did. What I have learned as a biological anthropologist suggests that physiological constraints on growth could help explain why women stop getting taller right around the time we start regular menstrual cycles, a costly metabolic process that could divert resources away from height. Pregnancy and lactation are even costlier, so women’s smaller bodies may boost but also betray their talent for metabolic marathons. There could be a similar explanation for why men do not grow even bigger than they do, as we might expect after generations of kick-ass attitudes. Furthermore, male dominance may be much more the result of their bigger bodies than the cause.”
The approach taken by Dunsworth underscores the importance of balancing scientific principles with storytelling in a way that will engage an audience. The way she talks about her experiences with students and with her own growth as a child, she brings the reader back from the science at regular intervals so she can reconnect and keep the reader engaged. And to her credit, Dunsworth refrains from tackling the moralistic fallacy that even if Trump’s just-so story were true, it doesn’t mean we should act this way now. We all can get better at communicating, and it starts with practice. So please, pick up that pen and paper (or keyboard) and get to it! We have a science communication problem that needs to be solved. And it can be solved with practice.
Do you have an idea you’d like to write about for SciCommPLOS? Or, do you want to pitch an idea to one of us? If so, please get in touch by email. We look forward to hearing from you!
- Nelson, M.P. and J.A. Vucetich, On advocacy by environmental scientists: what, whether, why, and how. Conservation Biology, 2009. 23(5): p. 1090-1101.
- Ruggiero, L.F., Scientific independence and credibility in sociopolitical processes. Journal of Wildlife Management, 2010. 74(6): p. 1179-1182.
- Kotcher, J.E., et al., Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication, 2017. 11(3): p. 415-429.