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Explaining Science: Q&A with Bethany Brookshire

Bethany Brookshire is a science education writer for ScienceNews. She is the guest editor of The Open Laboratory Anthology of Science Blogging, 2009, and the winner of the Society for Neuroscience Next Generation Award and the Three Quarks Daily Science Writing Award, among others. She blogs at Eureka! Lab and at Scicurious. You can follow her on Twitter as @scicurious. CAISE recently interviewed her on the topics of science communication and informal STEM learning. 

[CAISE] How do you define science communication?

[BB] Well, Wikipedia defines it as “public communication presenting science-related topics to non-experts.” I personally define it as “my life.” But I also think that “science communication” is not necessarily public, and it’s not necessarily to non-experts. I also think science communication is about far more than just “presenting” content. To me, science communication is anything that gets new information about science to people that didn’t have that information before. Maybe that’s news about science. Maybe it’s an “explainer” of a phenomenon that gives new insights about something just outside of someone’s field. Maybe it’s injecting science concepts into non-science topics. It doesn’t have to be public — it could be someone sharing the latest cool science thing they learned with their spouse or kids. It doesn’t have to be “presented”, it could be something that people interact with, design or build themselves. And it doesn’t have to be to “non-experts.” We’ve all got gaps in our knowledge and new things to learn.

How did you transition from doing science to writing about it?

To set the scene: The year was 2008. I was a third-year grad student. I was in something called the “post-quals slump.” Nothing was working and I began to doubt that I was really cut out for academia. I started a science blog under a pseudonym, and started writing about science that fascinated me. I continued doing it as I finished my Ph.D. and did three years of a post-doc. I found a community online of people who were just as nerdy as I was. After my post-doc funding ran out, I was at an impasse. I could go for a part-time teaching-heavy position, try for another post-doc, or…write. I decided to write. I was lucky enough to get picked up by Society for Science & the Public about six months later as their science education writer. They’ve helped make a real writer out of me, and I’ve been here ever since.

Why should scientists get involved with science communication?

Let’s change this question. Why might scientists want to get involved with science communication? Well, first of all, it can be incredibly rewarding. Scientists are passionate about what they do--it’s not a field we generally choose just because we want a day job. Sharing that passion with others, igniting it in other people, is its own reward.

I also think transparency and communication is especially important for many basic scientists who are funded by government agencies. In the end, they are funded by taxpayer dollars. Those taxpayers have a right to know what they are getting for that money, and why it matters.

It’s also important to help people understand how science is done. Just as with any other profession, many of us might think we know how it works. But we don’t understand it until we meet and talk with someone in it. Students are taught the steps of the scientific method. But actual science is messy, frustrating, and the day to day of science doesn’t always form a neat line between “form a hypothesis” and “draw conclusions.” The best way to help people understand what doing science is really like is to meet a scientist in the first place.

Now, SHOULD all scientists get involved with science communication? I don’t know. Some people may honestly hate it. Some people may turn out to not have a talent for it. Not everyone should be forced to hop up and give a peppy TED-talk on their work, and that’s ok!

But there are many ways to engage, and none of them are less worthy. Scientists can go into their kids’ classrooms. They can lead hikes. They can set up star-gazing telescopes. They can let school groups visit their lab. They can set up a daily Instagram, or a Twitter feed. They can talk honestly with journalists, not just about their own research, but about the research of their colleagues, to ensure their field is covered with accuracy and depth. All of these things are science communication and all of these things are worthwhile.

How do you find, and/or why do you choose, the science stories you write about?

There are several different types of science stories that I tend to pursue, and I find out about all of them in different ways. First, there’s basic news stories about new findings in science. I tend to find these because journalists receive press releases and tables of contents from scientific journals and universities. I go through them and pursue the things that strike me as interesting. I get the papers and read them, and if I see a story there, I will pitch that story to my editors. After some back and forth, I will either pursue the story and start calling sources, or it may get dropped. You can see an example here. These stories can be very short and fast, taking as little as a day, or they can be longer and take several days to report, write and edit.

A second kind of story is a feature. These are longer, deeply-covered- stories on a single topic. They may look at a bigger question in a science field, or they might take on a unique angle. Sometimes, I’ll be lucky enough to report from on location for some of these. I may get to go to Alaska to talk to experts about hibernation, or to Virginia to meet some dermestid beetles gnawing apart a road-killed carcass. These features take weeks to report, weeks to write and months to edit. For these, I often keep lists of topics I’m interested in, and collect sources as they hit my radar. I might be somewhere for another reason and get my curiosity piqued. Or I might be writing another story and come across a fascinating question I need to spend more time on.

A third kind of story is an explainer. These can be short or long, and take on topics that I want to explain to my audience. I might make a video on how to design an experiment and test it. I might write an explainer about chemical messengers in the brain. These stories aren’t tied to a particular event, they are used to give people information that helps them understand new science as it comes along. I often come across these as I’m writing, I’ll hit a topic such as, say, neurotransmission, and realize people will probably need that one explained a little better than just a single sentence can do.

There are other kinds of stories. I also make podcasts, write blog posts with words of the week, and more!

What are the challenges you face as a science communicator?

I would say the two biggest challenges I face right now are getting it right, and making it interesting. When you try to write about science (especially when you try to cover statistics) without using the very specialized, obsessive and repetitive language that scientists use to be very clear about their meanings, you run a very good risk of getting something wrong. An explainer about statistics, for example, can take me weeks, as I try to convey the uncertainty around probabilities and what “significance” means. I’m still not satisfied with any of my explanations!

The other challenge is getting it right while keeping it interesting. We talk a lot about “knowing our audience,” but at the same time, we can’t just cater to our audience’s interest. Writing about science, particularly about science news, is about what’s new, not about what’s clickable. But you can’t expect people to willingly “eat their veggies” and read boring news. So we have to find ways to make science news that is esoteric, and (sorry guys) sometimes kind of boring, interesting. Often, I’m so passionate about what I’m covering that it’s a delight. But sometimes, my well of creativity runs pretty dry.

In our field we often say that informal STEM learning is lifelong, life-wide and life deep. Where do you think most people are getting most of their information about science these days?

Well, I think people are getting most of their information about science where they get most of their information, period. The internet, and often via their friends and shared social media. That can be good. Really amazing science communication sometimes goes viral and then you have the joy of feeling like the whole world learned something wonderful!

But it also has the potential to go very wrong. There’s been a story that keeps popping up and circulating, every few months, about how cheese contains opiates, and is therefore addictive. While I will always cheer for cheddar, the story is patently ridiculous. But I have seen friends of mine share the story, and they are really, actually worried that cheese is addictive. These are smart people, getting fooled by fake news. There’s a lot of worry going around about the rise of “fake news” on the Internet, and what it might mean. I think what it highlights is that most of us, myself included, don’t learn in middle or high school what journalism is and what it does. We learn that things we read are, by and large, supposed to be the truth. Especially if those things look professional or serious. If it’s in a book, like a textbook, it’s supposed to be true and worthy right? If it’s in something that looks like a newspaper or magazine, that means it’s true. Right?

We don’t learn to look at where an article was published or who wrote it. We don’t automatically read things skeptically. We share, often, without reading at all. I think the shift in where we get our information, and how we share it, has highlighted the need for us all to learn critical thinking in a way we were never forced to before.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently released a consensus report, Communicating Science Effectively, in which an expert committee states that the ‘deficit model’ of science communication is wrong. The report explains that “[t]he research on science communication… shows that audiences may already understand what scientists know but, for diverse reasons, do not agree or act consistently with that science.” What are your thoughts on this statement? What challenges does this present to science communicators and how can they address them?

The deficit model is an especially interesting one for science writers, I think. Our job, after all, is based on getting information out there, on filling the hole, often with articles that just talk to people. If you take the deficit model to mean that all we are doing is throwing information at people, then we ARE the deficit model.

The deficit model specifically states that skepticism about science is due to a lack of accurate information on the topic. Fill in the deficit, and the skepticism will apparently go “poof.” Basically, if we fling enough facts into a hole, it will make people realize the joy of facts.

This is obviously not working. But this is also not the way most good science communication works. If we were just flinging facts into the void, we’d be walking dictionaries of condescension — the exact thing designed to make people more wedded to their original beliefs. One of the biggest challenges for science communication is not just slinging facts. Instead, it’s surrounding those facts with feelings, engaging readers or learners with the material. It could be finding a story in the facts, a story that grabs people and keeps them reading. It might be giving people a project to do, one that has them absorb facts along the way and integrate them into their project. It might mean meeting people halfway, starting with how they feel about an issue and why they feel that way. Don’t just assume people don’t know. Assume they have a reason for the way that they feel about something.

In our (ISE) field we often refer to a “STEM learning ecosystem” that includes designed formal and informal education experiences and settings as well as other “actors” that students and people of all ages can avail themselves of to learn about these topics. How do you see science writing’s role in that ‘ecosystem’, if you will?

Perhaps a “primary consumer” like a snail? We take in the science findings like grass and…um…produce…let’s not take this analogy further. I think science writing helps play a role in providing the kind of educational material that people can turn to, over and over, to help them understand concepts. Maybe they’re learning something in school and need more background.

I also think science writing can do a lot to make people think about ways that their lives interact with science that they may not have realized before. We might learn how to “do” science in school, or participate in a citizen science project, but science surrounds us and is embedded in our lives. It’s in our cell phones. It brews our coffee. It cleans our water (or not). It drives our cars. I think science writing and cool science stories can highlight the big and small ways that science permeates our world. But I think informal science education can ALSO do that. It’s all the way in which you want to take in your science. Some people want to read. Some people want to see videos. Some people want to hear podcasts, participate in citizen science or go to museums. It takes a whole ecosystem to share science.

Although the goals of informal STEM education and science communication (and science journalism) are often different, we have discovered that the fields are facing similar challenges when it comes to broadening the participation of new audiences, and integrating research and practice and building capacity for measuring or assessing the effectiveness of particular strategies or methodologies. Do you think that  the fields of ISE and science communication have things to learn from each other?

Absolutely! I am currently trying to read a lot more of the science communication literature myself, from informal science ed to studies on the effectiveness of various teaching methods. It’s amazing how much we do by instinct, and how much we assume certain things work (say, myth-busting and takedown articles) when in fact they might only work to make us feel satisfied.

I think science communication can learn a lot from the hands-on projects of ISE. The experiences that people get doing science themselves are so incredibly powerful. I would love to share more of those stories myself, and I think science communicators can learn a lot from participating in and trying to integrate those experiences into their communication.

Who are some of your favorite science communicators?

There are so, so many out there!

I would really encourage people to find science communicators from diverse backgrounds whenever possible. I especially love Raychelle Burks’ work. She’s always got a new angle to get an audience interested in chemistry, from crime to cocktails. She also heads up the DIY science zone every year at GeekGirlCon. Getting to kids and families with hands-on science is such a joy and so important. I also really enjoy working with Stephen Granade every year at Dragon Con on the science track. It’s such a fabulous opportunity to reach a completely different audience. It’s also loads of fun. I absolutely recommend Danielle Lee. She talks a lot on twitter about underrepresented groups in science, and I learn so much from her. She has really formed how I think about representation in the sciences. And I love watching videos by Emily Graslie and Anna Rothschild. Their YouTube channels are always fun, and I always learn something new!