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When scientists describe how non-specialists misunderstand their language, there’s often a note of sadness in the discussion. If only the United States public was more enlightened than it is today, some bloggers say, then people would understand the language of science. 

A recent Scientific American blog post described how non-scientists in the United States misunderstand the scientific meanings of words like “theory,” “significant,” “hypothesis” and “natural.” A post on the Science 2.0 website provides a longer list of words that are often misunderstood.

What’s wrong with hoping the public will understand scientific language someday? Nothing. But we live in a society where scientists are a specialized group, often socially distant from many of the people who misunderstand them. If scientists want to eradicate misunderstandings and strengthen public awareness of the value of science, better communication and more social interaction is the best solution.

There are tips available online for scientists who want to do a good job of communicating their research and ideas in the classroom. I’ve edited some of these tips myself. When I was working at the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), I edited two book sections showing how scientists can respond to misunderstandings immediately when talking with students. Here’s a shortened excerpt from one of the sections:

Problems of Terminology

1. Confusing the technical meanings and the ordinary meanings of words.
Some scientific terms have technical meanings that are very different from their common sense meanings.

2. Using words that have technical meanings and not realizing it.
Some ordinary English words are used as technical terms, as explained above, but experienced scientists (such as graduate students and lecturers) are so used to using these words that they often forget that these words have special meanings. So the scientists don’t define the terms and then are surprised when the students don’t know what they mean.

3. Getting confused when using similar but not identical terms.
Certain pairs of terms seem to be difficult to distinguish – for example, “gene” and “allele,” as well as “chromosome” and “chromatid.” To make it worse, some of these terms are synonyms in common speech, such as “inhibition” and “repression.” A good way to clear up confusion is to compare and contrast; compare what the two terms have in common and contrast their differences.

DNA
Students sometimes misunderstand terms related to genes and DNA. (Source: stock.xchng)

A second section covers the various types of misunderstandings that can occur.

Preconceived Notions

Preconceived notions are popular conceptions rooted in everyday experiences. For example, many people believe that water flowing underground must flow in streams because the water they see at the earth’s surface flows in streams. Preconceived notions plague students’ views of heat, energy, and gravity…

Nonscientific Beliefs

Nonscientific beliefs include views learned by students from sources other than scientific education, such as religious or mythical teachings…

Conceptual Misunderstandings

Conceptual misunderstandings arise when students are taught scientific information in a way that does not provoke them to confront paradoxes and conflicts resulting from their own preconceived notions and nonscientific beliefs. To deal with their confusion, students construct faulty models that usually are so weak that the students themselves are insecure about the concepts.

Vernacular Misconceptions

Vernacular misconceptions arise from the use of words that mean one thing in everyday life and another in a scientific context (i.e., “work”). A geology professor noted that students have difficulty with the idea that glaciers retreat, because they picture the glacier stopping, turning around, and moving in the opposite direction. Substitution of the word “melt” for “retreat” helps reinforce the correct interpretation that the front end of the glacier simply melts faster than the ice advances.

Glacier in Argentina
Students may not understand that glaciers retreat by melting rather than turning around and moving backward. (Source: stock.xchng)

Factual Misconceptions

Factual misconceptions are falsities often learned at an early age and retained unchallenged into adulthood. If you think about it, the idea that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place” is clearly nonsense, but that notion may be buried somewhere in your belief system.

Correcting science misconceptions requires a sophisticated understanding of both communication and science. Investing more resources in science education can help improve public science literacy. But scientists may also need to consider using alternate words for concepts that most people misunderstand.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip
A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?


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When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this Thursday, I attended a panel presentation on how to talk about science in political contexts.

Buried among many nuggets of quotable insights was a surprising statement. I noticed later that many people posted it online. One of the speakers advised scientists to present themselves as either Democrats or Republicans if they choose to talk about “values” with politicians – and to stick to the stance they take.

Although this advice may be practical, I think it may oversimplify the complex reality of scientists’ views and values about policy. Thinking in terms of a simple two-party system obscures that:

  • If politically independent scientists “choose a party” because of social pressure, they will not be presenting their views accurately.
  • Bipartisan science organizations exist. They also write recommendations for the federal government. Some of their messaging does reflect values.
  • There is no reason to expect that a scientist will agree with all of a party’s platform, even if he or she supports most of it. That expectation could put a scientist in an awkward position.
  • Some scientists may support third parties.

Also, it is very difficult to present science without involving values at all. Values are almost always present in how we talk about science. Here are some examples of common science-related statements which contain values:

  • “The United States should increase funding for science and technology so we can maintain our competitive edge.” 
  • “New technology is good for our society.”
  • “We should evaluate K-12 schools in terms of their standardized test performance.”
  • “We should teach science in ways that are culturally competent.”

Rather than attempting to maintain a fiction of value-free objectivity, it might be more effective for scientists to adopt a stance of open-mindedness. An open-minded researcher considers information from sources with which he or she may disagree. An open-minded researcher also talks with people whose viewpoints differ from his or her own.

Simran Sethi, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at University of Kansas, gave the TED talk below to illustrate how she talks with hunters, Christians and Libertarians about environmentalism. In the video, she challenges listeners’ ideas about their own political superiority and shows the benefits of conversations that cross political divides.

I’ve blogged before about Public Conversations Project, a nonprofit organization which facilitates dialogues to bring together diverging viewpoints. In my opinion as a science blogger, an open-minded stance should be an option for scientists who are approaching politicians.

The fact that our federal government operates as a binary system doesn’t mean that this system matches the scientific method, reflects who scientists are, or represents the menu of options scientists should have when they communicate.

Scientists can be politically independent, affiliated with third parties, open to views that differ from their own, or interested in bipartisanship. If scientists choose to question either/or thinking, that could improve the quality of public conversations about science.


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This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.


Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Blogs tend to evaporate into the stratosphere of outdated software and broken links unless they are maintained and managed. Now, Jennifer Harbster, a staffer at the Library of Congress, wants to keep groundbreaking science blogs alive.

The Library of Congress began preserving websites in the year 2000. The library chooses which websites to preserve based on their historical value. This year, staff are accepting suggestions of which science blogs to save for future generations. Blogs which feature original research and ideas are the most likely to be selected, Harbster said.

The main goal of the Science Blogs Collection will be to capture a representative sample of science research, writing, teaching and communication, as well as scientific discourse in the United States.

Harbster said the main criteria for choosing a science blog to save are:

  1. What is the usefulness of this information?
  2. Will this blog supplement a preexisting collection?
  3. Does this blog have research value?
  4. Is the blog at risk?
  5. Can the blog be easily captured?

If you want to suggest a science blog for preservation, visit the Library of Congress website and submit your idea.

Meanwhile, at ScienceBlogs, Frank Swain has suggested selling curated collections of blog posts as e-books. If this idea catches on, it could be another way to preserve the writing of science bloggers.


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Dr. Laura Akers, who works at Oregon Research Institute, has spent years studying what motivates social change movements. She studies both the positive motivations behind activism and the dangerous edges of movements that pose risks to the public.

Recently, Akers wrote about how evoking hope can help us avert disasters like global warming. As she emphasized in several blog posts:

If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.

Whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies… In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.

Research posted on the Climate Access website shows talking about climate change in terms of public health can accomplish this goal.

A webinar Climate Access hosted on Jan. 22 underscored Akers’ recommendations.

“I always encourage people to communicate [about climate change] in combination with solutions – mitigation – what we can do on the front end – and adaptation,” said Dr. Suzanne Moser, one of the presenters.

Moser is working with a team of hundreds of experts to create the United States’ National Climate Assessment. The team is following best practices in communicating its results, which she says can be overwhelming for audiences otherwise.


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Pull out the firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads! It’s time for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, where we’re writing about our big dreams for 2013.

My big dream is to advance a meme.

Memes are catchy ideas that stick in one’s imagination and influence one’s worldview. SmartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change contains many examples of nonprofits deliberately disrupting existing social memes and creating new ones.

Here’s an example of an environmental organization’s disruption of a popular meme:

Greenpeace satirized GMOs with this ad campaign.
Greenpeace satirized genetically modified corn with this ad.

The meme I want to promote this year is about a broader topic than Greenpeace’s – and it might appeal to a wide range of people.

Here it is:

Our environment is the root of our economy.

Everything we manufacture, produce, sell and trade comes from the planet we inhabit. If we disregard our environment, we will have no economy left to show. This is all we have – our somewhat damaged planet and its many resources.

Since I like automotive analogies, I’ll make one here. Imagine that you’re moving from New York to Arizona with everything you own in the back of your truck. As you drive across the desert, your truck starts having mechanical problems and your cell phone dies. It’s time to get out the wrench set.

Similarly, if we want a healthy planet, it’s time to repair our decisions and set a better course. Like the driver in the middle of the desert, we have no alternative. The repair will have to include economic adaptation and innovation. Businesses have the energy to transform society.

How do I plan to advance this meme in 2013? I plan to tweet and write about the green economy. I want to focus on solutions, reconstruction, and the repair of our existing systems.

How will this influence what I write? There are multiple avenues I can pursue to expand on this meme and make it part of my work.

  1. Using constructive angles in journalism and in this blog can motivate readers to take positive actions at home and at their jobs.
  2. Breaking news about university research can disseminate creative solutions.
  3. Supporting cross-pollination between sectors can build collaboration.
  4. Writing about urban sustainability projects can shine a light of possibility on the road to economic and environmental recovery.
  5. Building work relationships with larger organizations that support this meme can give me the tools and resources to take this message to larger audiences.

I work for an organization which supports sustainable business decisions and plan to make connections with other groups in New England which are doing the same. These groups include Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and E2Tech.

Do you have any other ideas about ways to advance this meme about the environment and the economy?


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Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

 

 

Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?


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