Lessons Learned from Toms River

On Monday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a free presentation by science journalist, New York University professor and author, Dan Fagan. Dan was recently awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.

Handout given to attendees

Handout given to attendees

Now, I have to admit, I haven’t read the book yet. I’m in the thick of thesis writing, graduate school assistantships, job applications and volunteer activities. I haven’t actually read anything longer than scholarly journal article in probably six months. Luckily, Dan’s presentation was meant for those who were new to the Tom’s River story, and the information was incredibly relevant for the Appalachia area.

Toms River is a small town in New Jersey. Dan described it as a “middle of America kind of place.” It’s a town where the people thrive on things like Little League. Unfortunately, Toms River’s economy thrived on a chemical plant near the center of town. At one point, Toms River was home to the countries largest dye plant with over 1,300 employees.

Dan talked a lot about the life and stories of Toms River, but with help from the audience, he mirrored much of the discussion to West Virginia, like water contamination, powerful activists, government regulations and cleanup efforts.

While the main idea of Dan’s lecture was to talk about epidemiology, or the science that studies the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations, undertones of the presentation reinforced the need for clear communication and science literacy.

For instance, the residents of Toms River finally convinced the government to look at the cancer rates in the town. The results showed rates were 50% over the expected number, but officials kept the result hidden. In a world seamlessly connected with technology, hiding information is never an option, yet it often seems to happen (unsuccessfully) when it comes to issues of industry and public health.

Dan talks about the percent increase in cancer cases compared to the expected number in Toms River.  Notice that the cancer rate for children under 5 was three times higher!

Dan talks about the percent increase in cancer cases compared to the expected number in Toms River. Notice that the cancer rate for children under 5 was three times higher!

Dan also pointed out the need for adequately funded government oversight. We need to empower hollow agencies so they can enforce regulations. The NSA has a budget of 80 billion while the EPA only 8 billion. Now in Appalachia, empowering an agency who has been framed as the sole economy killer is a hard pill for many to swallow, but if we want to ever drink our water with comfort and certainty, it’s something that we’re going to have to work with.

The presentation ended with Dan emphasizing the power and responsibly an individual has. As professional media declines and citizen journalism finds power through social media, the average citizen needs to be smarter and more aware than ever. As public safety, industry, economy and politics continue to become even more entwined, and populations grow as resources shrink, we need STEM education and science literacy more than ever.

How science literate are you?  Do you actively reach for the science section of a newspaper (or click on the science link), or do you look to nightly news reports from your favorite local anchors? Some of you might even turn towards blogs and social media. Let me know where you get your news and why you chose that outlet!

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The More the Merrier

Although I’m a firm believer in getting my news from a trusted source, like the Associated Press, I’m also a big fan of reading the opinions of others on recent news via a blog.  I wanted to share with you just a few of my favorite blogs that I turn to for inspiration.  Some are strictly about science communication, some about STEM outreach, some about space (my favorite topic) and even one about energy issues, like coal, in West Virginia.  I hope a few of these pique your interest, and let me know if you find any others I should be checking out!

COMPASS is all about connecting scientists and their work with the general public. This blog helps scientists find their voice and brings science into everyday conversation, making it a great resource for the most up to date information in the science world.

The Plainspoken Scientist is a blog ran by the American Geophysical Union dedicated to helping scientists reach out to the public. It offers great tips on everything from public speaking tips to new online tools and platforms

The Art of Science Communication is primarily a blog dedicated to STEM students who face the daunting task of writing a thesis, but this blog offers great advice on presentation and engagement as well.

STEMblog calls itself the one-stop shop for who’s doing what in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s a great source to learn about the leaders in STEM outreach.

I F***ing Love Science is everyone’s favorite vulgar science Facebook page, but their Editor’s blog features some excellent insight on the world of science while debunking loads of viral science-related stories.

Bill Nye (the science guy) runs a blog through the Planetary Society on space, technology, STEM education and policy. His blog is one of my favorites thanks to its honest and thorough discussion of the intersection between government and science.

Coal Tattoo is probably my favorite blog I follow. It’s written by one of my personal favorite journalists, Ken Ward Jr., and follows the energy industry in West Virginia and the surrounding areas. Coal, and now fracking, plays a huge role in science in the state.

I love reading Science League of America. They’re self-proclaimed mission is to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science, but they talk about much for than that. They’re one of my go-to resources for STEM education policy.

The Loom is a blog belong to Carl Zimmer, one of today’s premiere science journalists. His blog covers all realms of science, but always delivers it in an interesting and easy to understand way.

Bad Astronomy is run by astronomer, public speaker and science evangelizer, Phil Plait, or the Bad Astronomer as he’s know on Twitter. Phil covers all aspects of the universe, but specializes in debunking exaggerated solar stories and tearing through the red tape of space policy.

Teaching Climate Change in Coal Country

We’ve established before that science communication is important, but good communication can’t take place without science literacy. Having an accurate, basic understanding of how the world works allows us to turn on the TV and instantly respond to the message. For instance, our knowledge of presidential term limits allowed us to catch this not-so-subtle jab President Obama made during this week’s State of the Union address.

But science literacy is just as, if not more, important. Science topics are detailed, full of jargon and exist on a large scale. For these reasons, science education must start at a young age, and it must be as accurate as we can make it.

West Virginia recently found itself in a bit of science education hot water over new science standards that cast doubt on climate change . While I have to applaud my home state for being one of the first 13 states to adopt what’s know as the Next Generation Science Standards, I can’t do much more than shake my head at the obvious manipulation of language in the some of the key concepts.

As reported by The Washington Post, “one sixth-grade standard requires students to explore the factors causing “the rise in global temperatures over the past century;” the West Virginia board changes required students to explore the “rise and fall in global temperatures over the past century.”” With one simple sentence, education leaders in West Virginia chose to discredit over 97% of scientists who firmly take the position that humans are contributing to a steady rise in global temperature.

After opposition from teachers, students, parents and professionals, the West Virginia state school board removed its changes to the standards and will be voting on the new standards in their original format in March.

Most importantly, remarks made by state school board members Wade Linger and Tom Campbell provided much needed context for the changes during an interview with The Charleston Gazette. “When asked why climate change was the particular “unproven science” that he and Linger were concerned about, Campbell responded “West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups.” He also noted the coal industry provides a significant amount of money to the state’s education system. “I would prefer that the outlook should be ‘How do we mine it more safely and burn it more cleanly?” Campbell said, “but I think some people just want to do away with it completely.” The Washington Post also noted the importance of coal to the state.

While West Virginia continues to walk the tightrope between industry and education, I hope it at least takes a moment to heed some Presidential advice given in the latest State of the Union Address. “No challenge  poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Science! So What?

Whether you believe it or not, media is important. We rely on media to keep us up to date on the latest political scandal, tell us a play-by-play of last night’s football game, provide us with information on the economic outlook for our town, state and country, and even give us reviews on the latest line of vehicles.

What many of us don’t do, though, is regularly turn to the news for information on what politician is now in charge of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, or NASA, a recap of the latest rocket launch, what company is building a plant near our water, or show us the environmental impact of that new SUV we just purchased.

There are a lot of reasons we might avoid these science-based stories. They’re generally long, complex and difficult to attribute directly to our daily life. Ohio won the National Championship because they were a better team. Awesome! We’ve been to Ohio before and we’re quite familiar with football. SpaceX just successfully launched a resupply rocket to ISS but failed to land the craft in one piece. So what? We’re not on ISS. We’re not even sure what ISS stands for! It’s International Space Station, by the way. Reading about things we don’t already have some knowledge about its exhausting.

We may not actively seek out science media, but we definitely should be. Increased public scientific awareness benefits the science itself, scientific organizations, scientists, and the general public. Yes, even you. But as of 2010, the U.S. National Association of Science Writers reported a 10 percent decline in membership from the year before. This decline means general assignment reporters are picking up science and technology stories, which means they have less knowledge in the area and less time to write. This has made science communication often short, exaggerated, or simply wrong.

While stories on science topics have vanished off the front pages of the daily newspaper, they’ve found a new hope in specialist outlets like Popular Science, Scientific American, and even the ever-popular I F***ing Love Science Facebook page. Though these offer AMAZING stories, photos and facts, the general public rarely reaches for these when they’re looking for something to read. This blog will address the presence, absence and quality of science communication as time goes by, but for now, what are your thoughts? Where do you get your science news? Who do/don’t you trust? How important is science to you?

Feel free to comment, or tweet at me at @Kbasham1!

Oh, Hello!

All great pieces of work have to starts somewhere!  My name is Kristen Basham.  I’m a space loving, science geek with a passion for all things media.  I’m currently a graduate student at West Virginia University and a born and raised West Virginian.  When not blogging, you’ll find me playing trivia, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 (my fave) and doing incredible amounts of homework that I put off until the last minute.

10626735_918114774868754_7245516811519151621_nLooking forward to sharing my thoughts and hearing yours!  Tweet me at @kbasham1!