Monday, March 17, 2014

The Science Communications Revolution - using the tools and picking your battles

The world of science and science communication is changing. This is something that we have seen in action at events like Science Online, Decoding Science and through the invention of tools that break down the walls between the realms of Science and the Layperson.

We as a society are growing towards a world where every citizen is a citizen scientist with a pocket tri-corder in the form of a smart device. In this world each citizen takes it upon themselves to capture data in the form of pictures, hashtagged posts, lat-long mapped points-of-interest and even qualitative first-person accounts of existence.

We are currently living in a world where tools already exists that allow anyone to speak directly, in real time, to their favorite experts, celebrities or even astronauts in orbit from the comfort of their own home. In an instant we can have our fingers on any publicly available data from almost any field with detailed analysis. To a certain extent, we can instantly answer almost any question we can think of.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" dropped its second episode this last Sunday. Tyson’s popularity has skyrocketed to the forefront of American attention through his appearances in popular media like the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and even Superman comics. Before his version of Cosmos debuted, Tyson described, in a Google Plus Hangout on Air, this rising tide in the popularity of science and ease of scientists to reach larger populations as “the main-streeming of science which is a watershed shift in how our culture is thinking about it.

As the expanse of human knowledge and experience grows, the need to directly connect on and educate science increases. The necessity to gain the attention of audiences in this social media and 24-hour-news-cycle driven world where people’s attention span is hair-thin grows ever important. There is a growing swell of scientists that are learning the tricks and trades of hitting that mark. Utilizing both new media and tried and true methods, science is making a break for the front monitor of the public’s view.

At conferences, like those mentioned above, scientists are being taught how to use social tools and storytelling techniques to better communicate. These scientist learn how to translate things like "uncertainty" and "consensus" into a 140 character world where stories resonate more true than hard data. There is one lesson that really needs to be hit home, pick your battles.

Earlier in February, Bill Nye, the well known TV science guy, who educated millions of kids and teens on some basic science in the late 90s, debated renowned Creationist and ant-evolutionist Ken Ham on the merits of Creationism as a scientific and teachable model.

While some warned against the debate or called it a waste of time and others still called it a "Nightmare for Science" in the opinion of this humble observer, this was a stroke of brilliance for Bill and the popularization of the scientific community.

Going into the debate, both sides knew two things, they would not be able to convince their opponent of their viewpoint or change their counter-part’s mind and that they both could use the opportunity to broadcast their positions to a wider audience. Ken Ham used the opportunity to pander to the Biblically observant through jokes about the Bible being “the answer” for all questions and to press forward a strange theory that the laws of physics changed drastically in the last 5000 years or so. He even got a public push to raise funds to build a replica of NOAH’s Ark.

Bill Nye used a small section of the debate to give some basic science lessons about the universe, dating and scientific reasoning to counter Ken’s complaints with evolution, but for much of the debate, he grew the conversation to something greater. Bill knew that this was not going to be an “Inherit the Wind” situation, he knew that he was in “enemy territory” and, being a man who was in the process of attempting a comeback to a larger market-share of American culture through public climate-change debates and televised dancing, Bill wanted this debate to hit larger targets. For a significant portion of the debate, Bill Nye turned the conversation to the need for better public education and science funding. He highlighted the fact that if you wanted a degree in Radio-Carbon Dating or certain fields that required certain types of science in Kentucky, you needed to search elsewhere. Bill Nye turned the debate into a call to action to the people of Kentucky, and abroad, to vote for science.

While Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out recently as saying that debating Climate-Change deniers is not worth his time, this wasn't always the case as he had previously clashed words on programs like Real Time with Bill Maher. In truth, Tyson is picking his battles here and allowing his amazing shiny new program Cosmos to throw down the gauntlet against those who would "pick and choose science" and even those who would try to decry evolution.

What we have to keep in mind is that we are living in a world where trying to gain the public's attention on any really important issue is a Sisyphean effort. Rolling that rock up gets you the groundswell and "virility" to get your 15-seconds. Most of the time it feels like just that. As soon as you get your chance to gain the focus of a post MTV world, the next story is about to be disclosed and you don't want to miss it because that story will change your LIFE!

The lesson here is that picking this battle turned Bill's passion for science to a national discussion topic. Bill Nye, Tyson and more scientists every day are part of a rising movement. The scientific community, who knows what the lessons of evolution can teach, are trying to reach a wide audience through new tools and tactics. Scientists, conservationists and educators are learning to adapt and that is good for everyone.

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