The Trouble with Twitter

When you think science communication you probably picture a lecture hall full of wide-eyed individuals listening quietly to a dense lecture full of power points. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve sat through my fair share of lectures and learned a lot from them, but communicating science has come a long way.

Arguably, today’s most important tool for sharing science is Twitter. Twitter currently has 284 million active users.   Compare this to Popular Science’s 10,000 iPad subscriptions and you can see the vast opportunity for outreach.

The great thing about Twitter is that it requires information to be boiled down to 140 characters. If you’re active on Twitter, I’m sure you’ve spent more time whittling away at a witty tweet than you’d care to admit. You learn very quickly what the most important part of your tweet is.

Science raises new challenges, though. For instance, my time with the communications department at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center engraved the use of acronyms into my vocabulary. There were acronyms for missions, tools, buildings, and even other acronyms. It was even more fun when different missions and organizations used the same acronym to mean different things, or when acronyms didn’t actually line up with the true names of things.

Because of all of this, acronyms were both a curse and a blessing. Sure, they were short, and great if you were referring to a mission. It was so much easer to type RRM than Robotic Refueling Mission, but if you were weren’t careful, tweets suddenly spiraled in “SSCO’s RRM gets new VIPIR tool for use on ISS.” I can almost promise you that you’ll scroll right past that tweet.

So how do we convey scientific information via Twitter? I argue that we don’t. Twitter isn’t a teaching tool. It’s a curiousity sparker. Instead of trying to spend 140 characters telling you about robots refueling satellites in space, why don’t I show you a cool picture and provide you a link?

07.12.2011 - On July 12, 2011, spacewalking astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan successfully transferred the Robotic Refueling Mission module from the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay to an temporary platform on the International Space Station's Dextre robot. via NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office

07.12.2011 – On July 12, 2011, spacewalking astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan successfully transferred the Robotic Refueling Mission module from the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay to an temporary platform on the International Space Station’s Dextre robot. Photo via NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.

Research shows that photos are fan favorites on Twitter, and playing on current events attracts attention. Science communicators will benefit most from engaging people, not lecturing them. Utilizing platforms in an efficient and appropriate way is the best (arguably only) way to make sure we’re getting the most out of efforts.

Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite science Twitter users and previewing some great uses of the site. What are some of your favorite accounts to follow, and what kind of material makes you stop scrolling, or better yet, click for more?


Getting Social about Space

I want to take a moment to talk about something that’s not so much Appalachia, but still a great example of the future of science communication.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend the day at one of my favorite places in the world, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA holds a special place in my heart, but especially Goddard. Two internships within its gates sparked an undying passion for all things science, technology and engineering for me. The whole place is kind of like a sci-fi infused college campus. There are clubs and events and classes, but instead of football stadium, you get a Space Environment Simulator that goes through 10,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen A DAY. I think that’s a pretty great trade off.

This thermal vacuum chamber exposes spacecraft components and other payloads to the environmental conditions they will experience once in space. The cylindrical chamber is 40 feet tall and 27 feet wide. -via NASA Goddard

This thermal vacuum chamber exposes spacecraft components and other payloads to the environmental conditions they will experience once in space. The cylindrical chamber is 40 feet tall and 27 feet wide. -via NASA Goddard

Enough about how amazing Goddard is, though. What’s really incredible about NASA is their style of public outreach and science communication. Sure, NASA does the usual press release and television live shot and web and social media update, but they also do something a little unexpected. In 2009, NASA hosted it’s first Tweetup (a group of Twitter users coming together to meet in person and tweet about the same general topic) at NASA’s Jet Propolsion Laboratory to tour the facility and learn about the latest missions.

By 2001, NASA had renamed the event to NASASocial and was inviting social media users representing almost all platforms. To date, NASA has hosted over 50 Socials in 15 unique locations. Attendees have had the opportunity to witness shuttle launches, spacecraft launches to the moon, Jupiter and Mars, fly an F/A-18 flight simulator and rub elbows with astronauts.

My personal NASASocial experiences have included a tours of Goddard and Wallops Island (here’s my Storify from the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, televised launches of missions with experts close by and one live launch of the Orbital Antares Rocket.

Yesterday’s event was focused on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission, a set of four identical spacecraft dedicated to studying magnetic reconnection near the sun.

Now, I won’t go into what magnetic reconnection is. That’s not what this blog is for. What IS important, though, is that nearly 40 public citizens spent their day dedicating their social media accounts to explaining this mission to their followers. The main event was held at NASA Kennedy Space Center for the actual launch, while Goddard held their own smaller media day.

This is a brilliant idea! We only share things we like and understand, right? That’s why it’s our account! So what better way to make a message public friendly than to let the public spread it? The best part of socials is that the people come from all different backgrounds. Some, like me, are dedicated communication professionals, while some have a rich science background. Others are schoolteachers, business professionals, stay-at-home parents and even video game actors (yea, I’m not kidding).

The point I want to drive home is that scientists don’t always need to speak to the masses. There are people willing to come to science and more than willing to sacrifice their battery life to share it, and with difficult concepts like magnetic reconnection, what better way to fine tune your message than to see what people are actually grasping?!

I know I’m super biased towards NASA, and I know there are valid complaints that come along with event, but when I look at the posts and following engagement that come out of these meetings, I can’t help but feel excited and hopeful that this is the future of science communication and outreach.

I encourage you to follow @NASASocial on Twitter and sign up for all the events!  You can also follow socials as they happen with the hashtag #NASASocial.

Defending Science Part 2

Yesterday’s post talked a little about why science-based campaigns are so rare when it comes to politics.

Some of the reasons we already touched upon have to do with the complexity of messaging and lack of expertise vs. need to argue from many politicians. Another problem is much more psychological, though. We habitually engage in cherry-picking evidence. All of us do it. Just think about the last night you got in an argument with a friend or loved one. You deliberately brought up things while carefully ignoring others.

The vaccine debate is a great example of this. While only one (falsified!) study was published claiming a link between autism and vaccinations, hundreds more produced data that showed there was no link. Just one ounce of evidence is all many people needed, though, to decide that vaccines weren’t for their child.

Another major problem when it comes to putting science back in politics is the allegiance to political parties. No party seems to want to fully claim science. For many, some science views go against religion. Others see science as a waste of government funds that produces little tangible gains in their eyes.

Claiming allegiance to a party is a necessary evil it seems in campaigns today, and unfortunately, party funding seems to stem heavily from those uninterested in pushing a science-backed agenda.

What all of this comes down to, is that science must be at the core of our national endeavors, and more importantly, we have to equip ourselves to be able to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of our thinking, and our leaders.

Defending Science pt 1

We’re quickly approaching full-blown presidential campaign season, and both parties are busy carefully crafting their messages.  We’re pretty accustomed to the key components of political messages, but we’re missing a crucial piece, science. Past campaigns have shown that ,traditionally, when a complex issue is involved, leaders simply do not explain. They find a mantra (“Stop Obama’s War on Coal!”)  and repeat it endlessly, “staying on message”, without explanation or qualification. We’re rarely treated to the “because.”

It seems obvious that evidence-based policies and actions should be central to campaign messages, but it’s rare that we move beyond slogans. But why?

There are a ton of reasons as to why science takes a backseat in our Appalachian politics. First, complex problems demand complex solutions. We need to revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies, but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to emotion and fear.

So we need to take action against global warming? Why? Not just because it’s “scary” and “dangerous.” It’s more than that. It’s huge snow and ice storms on top of widespread flooding. Violent weather is just one of the many “whys” for global warming discussion and action.

Politics avoid deep science for more than just ease of messaging, though. Politicians, who’s backgrounds are generally in law and business, make a living off of debating and arguing, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they avoid scientific topics. What is concerning though, is when the political process takes on a science topic that threatens another area of their expertise (or funding).

Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote of his experience in this regard:

As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.

Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologize for their lack of knowledge of science.

Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.

The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.

No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.

While recent research as shown that the public generally does trust scientists, why must politicians try so hard to eliminate it from their messages? More on this topic in tomorrow’s post.

From Attacks to Answers Through Engagement

Although you might not believe it from looking at news headlines, recent findings from the Pew Research Center show that Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists, and although topics like climate change and vaccines are highly polarized topics, the public may not be a strongly divided as we think.

While we love to engage in scientific debates, even when we aren’t that informed, talking about less “glamorous” science topics can be mundane, tedious and downright boring.

If you’re a scientist who happens to work in a field with less publicity, how do you achieve effective engagement? COMPASS blogs recently dedicated a whole post to answering this question. Their answer is that you need to show relevance, or the so what of your research and findings. Why science?

While this post was mainly for scientists, the same information holds true for STEM education. The question is how, where, and when can you engage to create a richer and more robust discourse? What we’re often missing in our formal science education is the why.

Yesterday’s post from this blog talked about the Appalachian global warming debate. It’s less of a debate, though, and more of attack messages from both sides. While civilized conversation and compromise may not happen overnight, using relevance to bridge the gaps between policy, culture and science is the type of tactic we need to employ in the coming generations.

What connections helped you understand science, and what future connections do you think we need to make?

Sno’ Worries about Climate Change

This winter has been especially rough up and down the east coast. We’ve had areas that have snow piled up over 100 inches , coatings of ice in the Carolinas and snow days in the Deep South.

Unfortunately, all this snow has sparked the annual social media storm of posts denouncing global warming because, gasp, there’s snow outside.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.22.36 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.28.26 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.43.45 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.29.04 AM

It seems that everyone has seen at least one person making a snow and global warming post, but if you live in Appalachia, you might have seen it more than most. Popular (and powerful) organizations like Friends of Coal are leading the way when it comes to riling up their followers with claims of government conspiracies promising hot, steaming weather. By the way, that’s NOT what climate change claims at all.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.39.11 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.37.57 AMI’m not writing a blog post on climate change to argue with you if it’s true or false, though. I’m sure you already know that I stand with the majority of the science community in my beliefs. This blog post is instead to encourage using a controversial topic like global warming to open dialogue.

What is it that makes people distrust scientists? How can we continue to prepare for the effects of climate change? Big storms will continue to be the norm for us. This is a perfect opportunity for educators to tie in STEM topics during the first few moments back from a snow day.

This blog post from the National Center for Science Education demonstrates some amazing ideas for educators when it comes to teaching climate change and incorporating STEM in unexpected places.

While I know that no amount of blog posts will ever change people’s minds about controversial topics that are so deeply rooted in politics, economics and the environment, we might as well take the opportunity to practice discussion and compromise. Bashing each other through political cartoons and exaggerated tweets gets us absolutely nowhere.

My only hope is that we start early and encourage science literacy and cooperation for future generations.

Uncovering Truth Sooner or Later

No matter what field or industry you work in, I’m sure you’re aware of a few less than stellar individuals who end up giving everyone a bad name. Maybe a rude cashier at Target ruined the shopping chain for you, or an overcooked steak at Outback turned you off of steakhouses for awhile. While you recognize that sometimes people are rude because of personal issues, and you’re well aware of easy it is to mess up a steak, how do you handle a mistake that you knew nothing about? How could you even recognize it?

Science is no different than the shopping and restaurant industry in that there are unfortunately a few bad apples. You may of heard of Dong-Pyou Han, an Iowa State University laboratory manager who confessed to spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise, or Andrew Wakefield, who falsified the results of his studies on vaccines as a cause of autism. What is different about science, though, is that we, the public, know a lot less about this kind of work than we do most other fields. Very few of us would know what to even look for when measuring the effectiveness of a vaccine, and we rely on studies exactly like Wakefield’s to tell us if we should actually be worried about mediation or not.

Last weekend brought to light another ethical lapse in the science world. Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, is a scientist associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is best known for his claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain global warming. This goes against the more widely accepted belief (97% of scientists) that humans play a large role in global warming.

The New York Times published an article about Soon’s involvement with Harvard, past research points and most importantly, his funding. He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. Soon also described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

As another blogger mentioned that it’s important to understand that accepting funding from a corporation for research is totally acceptable. Good research is expensive, and this is fairly common practice, but what isn’t acceptable, is not disclosing this possible conflict of interest.

The best thing to do now is to make sure we thoroughly investigate Soon. Harvard, Smithsonian and the numerous journals he published through need to take immediate and harsh action. In one of my first blog posts, I talked about West Virginia’s attempt at cutting global warming from the science education standards. How can we expect a state held in economic turmoil over global warming to willingly teach it until we can get the science community’s full support?

Like I said before, science is tricky. I’m not an astrophysicist or a climate scientist, and you probably aren’t either. We MUST demand clear and constant communication with the science community, and scientists, you have to understand why we need this. If we ever hope to make the big changes we’re going to need to make in the next few years, we’re going to require lots of honest and thorough communication.