Avoiding sensationalism, the art of data visualisation and the need to fight pseudoscience — researchers face so many challenges when trying to explain their science to the public. Colombian Early Career Prize winner Nicolás Gutiérrez Cortés decided to spend his Sparrho pesos flying to the World Conference of Science Journalists to get some insights and enjoy himself in the process.
I love conferences! There is such excitement in looking forward to who you’re going to meet and what you’re going to learn. Yep, it sounds ridiculous, but if you are a scientist this is about the only time in the year when you’re able to meet new people. Otherwise we toil in the lab, driven by our passion to learn, but sometimes the best way to more knowledge is to get out. In my case — and in your case too — the extra knowledge is learning about how to shake off the ‘geek in a lab coat’ image and dazzle the public with all the exciting stories hiding in boringly written science papers.
Thanks to the Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize I was able to afford a trip to California, to the World Conference of Science Journalism. Up to now I’ve been doing my research in mitochondrial genetics and metabolism, recently I’ve had a chance to do some science communication for Sparrho.com, and I have to say I loved it. So much so, that the word combination ‘science journalist’ has floated temptingly through my mind. Having landed in San Francisco, I soon discovered why a humble researcher has got to turn up at the occasional Science Communication conference: champagne. Normally, there is no champagne at science conferences, but there was here!
On a more serious note, I turned up at this event, because I realized that I not only I liked discovering stuff, I liked talking about research too, and this is why WCSJ felt like a good choice.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into the world of SciComm!
Having tackled the champagne, we headed over to the headquarters of KQED Radio (Northern California’s PBS-affiliated radio station) to a special meeting of Latin American science communicators.
It was great to make contacts and meet science journalists. Gabriela Quirós from Costa Rica is head of Deep Look, KQED’s youtube channel about science and nature. One of the key takeaways came from her as she demonstrated how creativity could be used by scientists to engage with the public and explain science.
(If you hate mosquitoes, look away and scroll down a bit, though!)
Another interesting talk was on pseudoscience, a difficult subject and a very current one.
Identifying false science may be really hard, even for scientists, because even if a reserch paper gets published it does not necessarily mean it is true.
The reviewers may only see what the scientists want to show, unable to spot fraud or realising that essential data is missing.
Even if the results are validated by other labs, again, how do we know what they publish is true?
Although confirmation by other labs at least lowers the probability of fake science, us scientists and science communicatiors still, need to be a little skeptical about what we read, no matter the source. Doubt, so you can be sure.
When science might be right, but it’s misrepresented
Another important talk was about Data Visualization, which is very useful, especially for scientists!
Alberto Cairo from University of Miami showed us how charts can be used to show or hide data.
“Think hard about how to show your data to make it as clear and as true as possible, and beware with other people’s data, because they may be hiding more than what they show.”
For instance, he explained how the data from the recent US elections was shown differently by Democrats or Republicans, according to what they wanted to prove.
So, the bottom line is to think hard about how to show your data to make it as clear and as true as possible, and to beware with other people’s data, because they may be hiding more than what they show.
A very useful workshop raised questions about avoiding sensationalism and how to address contradicting scientific opinions during a health crisis. The case study was the outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin-America and the Caribbean.
Participants heard how reporters had to make sense of the often contradictory information offered by experts, while being under pressure the avoid sensationalism or causing a panic.
It was really eye-opening to take part in the exercise of trying to separate myths from facts and useful to think about how journalists and researchers need to work together to truthfully convey a science story, when some of the information only comes to light gradually.
Tackling cultural biases in research
One of the most interesting events of the entire conference was a talk about cultural biases affecting research, Decolonizing Science.
We all know that most science (especially biomedical) done in the US or Europe is tested on Caucasians.
“It can cause a problem when trying to apply that science in other regions — because the biology and environment may be very different —, making the science useless or even dangerous.”
It is also problematic, because it ignores millennia of local knowledge, which is not taken into account simply because it is not “scientific”.
For instance, agricultural practices, successfully used for centuries are now changing all over the world to fit the Western way of agriculture, which is to be more efficient and bring faster yields.
But in several places— India, for example — they are starting to see that such methods are not good for their environment and are trying to return to more traditional practices, combining these with modern knowledge.
Scientists from outside the Anglosphere also want to be heard
And of course there is the problem of language. Since most of today’s science is done in English, it may be hard to translate it and its worldview into other languages, which makes it inaccessible for most people and difficult to put it into practice.
“Since most of today’s science is done in English, it may be hard to translate it […] into other languages, making it inaccessible for most people and difficult to put it into practice.”
This talk was complemented by other talks on African Science and Covering Indigenous Voices in Science, both highlighting the importance of taking into account science from all regions of the world and all cultures, because we are missing out on a lot of useful knowledge due to our eurocentrism.
And finally letting our hair down with the help of…
…some beer at the museum…
One of the best moments of the conference was partying in the California Academy of Science! Imagine having a beer (or two or three) in the middle of a science museum, with laser lights and electronic music.
“A dream I didn’t know I had, came true.”
…and some tree-hugging
On the final day we had a field trip to the Redwood Park in north California, home of the tallest and oldest trees in the world.
Here a local scientist from Berkeley explained us his research on those those redwoods and sequoias.
For instance, the oldest one that we saw was 1400 years old, but it may be even older, much older!
Dr. Todd Dawson told us that these trees tend to fall and be replaced by new ones that grow from the same roots, so genetically it is the same tree which could be 10,000 years old! Fascinating!
What I have learnt
In conclusion, attending the WCSJ was a great way to get to know the challenges of communicating science, from learning how to show data without misleading the public and being aware of pseudoscience to understanding the need of taking into account science and knowledge from all over the world. So, if you get the opportunity to go to a conference soon, do not hesitate, GO!
Nicolas is a science journalist based in France. He completed his PhD at the University of Bordeaux specialising in mitochondria and genetics.