Gentle Science Communication: Bill Nye vs David Attenborough

I’ve been promising this blog post on gentle science communication for months now, so apologies that it has taken me so long to get round to writing. I first thought of writing about this topic when I was in Toronto as part of my WCMT Fellowship (that reminds me, applications for WCMT Fellowships 2020 are now open, find out more here!). Anyway, yes, Toronto. I started my Fellowship work in Toronto at the beginning of January, and my initial aim was to find out how to make science communication more engaging.

The field of science communication research is vast, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies that provide robust data on what works, what doesn‘t, and why. My Fellowship was different to that field of research because I was coming at it from a different angle; I approached this from an entirely practical perspective. To be blunt, I didn’t want to know why specific science communication techniques worked, what causes specific responses to communication methods. I wanted to know, in very simple steps, how I can improve the way I engage with people online. (Spoiler alert – blogging infrequently, irregularly and in rushed snippets of time is not as I have been over the last few months? That’s absolutely not the answer; do as I say not as I do and all…).

See the source imageOne of the biggest learning points I took away from that first week in Toronto was the importance of gentle science communication.

For me, there are two extremes to science communication; the shouty type where you are communicating a fact in an effort to tell ‘the truth’, and the more touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type where you are finding out scientific story or learning skill (e.g. critical thinking) but it’s not so immediately obvious.
This time last year I’d say I sat firmly in the middle of those two extremes. I got frustrated by people that were against vaccination and would find myself thinking things like, ‘but how on Earth can this person think like that, they’re intelligent!’, and the prospect of engaging with a flat-Earther or someone that ‘didn’t believe’ in climate change just seemed pointless.

Honestly I’m a bit embarrassed by that.

Now, my views on science communication lean much more toward the touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type. So why have my views changed so much?

As with anything, there are pros and cons to each of those two extremes, but after the conversations I had during my Fellowship, I’m not sure I’ll ever be involved in shouty science communication (yes, that’s a technical term) again.
Gentle science communication allows us to build an understanding environment, one where people are free to explain their anxieties, fears, and unease about a subject, and where the scientist or science communicator takes those concerns into account, respectfully engaging in dialogue that factors in uncertainties no matter whether they are scientifically accurate or not.

That might make complete and total sense when you read it – ‘of course we should be respectful and not belittle people’ I hear you cry! Unfortunately, that’s not always how things play out. A recent example of this comes from science celebrity Bill Nye. Now, I am not anti-Bill Nye; I’ve paid money to see him and written about that experience on this blog before, but I think it’s important that we are able to take a critical look at people that we admire.

A few weeks ago, Bill Nye appeared on US TV show Last Week Tonight, explaining that:

“By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I’m saying is: The planet’s on fucking fire.”

For those of us who agree with Bill’s stance on climate change, this video might offer a quick laugh or a frustrated sigh in agreement.

What do you think it offers people that have different views on climate change? Personally, I think it has the potential to offend and insult those people, likely causing them to immediately disengage with any further communication efforts focussing on the science behind climate change.

See the source imageBill Nye is one of the most famous scientists alive today, and in my opinion, this brand of harsh science communication is doing more harm than it is good. The topic of climate change is contentious; there are those that believe it is either not happening, or a natural phenomenon that would be happening whether humans were on the planet or not.

On the other hand, millions of people agree that it is happening, and that is it caused by human-kind. I am in that group; I don’t eat meat, I always carry a re-useable water bottle and I try to limit the amount that I consume in terms of fast fashion and single use plastics. I believed in climate change before, but this clip from David Attenborough made me more conscious of the part that I am playing in the progressive warming of the planet.

So, why do I think David Attenborough’s approach is more effective than Bill Nye’s?

See the source imageFirst and foremost it’s about emotional impact. Both Bill Nye and David Attenborough were presumably hoping that their communication methods would encourage people to make changes their behaviour. The former used anger and frustration, the latter opted for emotion, visuals and gentle words. David Attenborough caused me to change my behaviour because I was able to see myself in the nets and straws that overwhelmed the sea in front of him. Bill Nye on the other hand, made me pity the people that I already disagree with. Swearing and belittling an audience with an opposing view to you is going to alienate them, rather than encourage them to listen to you. This shouty approach is not one-time screw up that can be remedied by another interaction later on, dismissing someone’s views (whether scientifically correct or not) is likely to make them think twice about engaging with a scientist in the future; it’s a screw-up that could have negative long-term consequences.

As scientists, it’s important that we learn from those that are doing science communication respectfully. Please, think twice before you make a joke about someone’s views on science; it’s the fault of generations of scientists before us (and likely a few that are still alive and well today) that members of the public are basing their opinions on factually inaccurate information, and it’s up to us to do better.

This piece published in Scientific American is also worth a look – even the scientists that we look up to can be problematic. It’s important that we acknowledge that and aim to do better.


I’m sure there are professional science communicators that are reading this thinking that I am naïve, and they’d be correct – I was hugely naïve before embarking on my Fellowship. Now I’m a bit less naïve, and I’m working to share my own little journey in a gentle and understanding environment. I’m not perfect; I’m learning, and I hope that sharing my thoughts on topics like this can help people learn from me just as I learned from others.

 

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Peterborough STEM Festival – 13th October 2018

Today I was at Peterborough STEM Festival with Science On A Postcard – I know, I haven’t mentioned it at all, hence the late #Blogtober post. Yesterday I drove from Aberdeen to Northumberland to Doncaster, and then my boyfriend drove the last hour and a half to Peterborough. We were then up bright and early to set up our stand at the event this morning before doors opened at 9.30am. We shut down at 4pm and the day was jam packed! Really good fun, but hoooooly cow I am tired. So tired in fact, that we both drove back to the hotel and immediately had a nap before ordering room service and watching Harry Potter (#rockandroll).

Enough about my post-nap antics; today was brilliant. I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’ve only sold Science On A Postcard projects online up until now; this was my first face to face activity.

I did a lot of prep work last week – my nails are officially wrecked from taking pin badge backers off, adding a backing card and then re-pinning – but the preparation seemed to pay off!

We had lots of brilliant attendees coming to see what we were selling, some buying, and some even asking about how Science On A Postcard came about. I even got the chance to do some of science communication about my own work, clinical trials and Trial Forge! One lovely guy named Samson (a Geophysicist) even got me with some of his own scicomm whilst his little daughter was sneaky away with one of the free lollipops we supplied 🙂

As well as working scientists, we had lots of scientists of the future coming over asking questions about our pin badges – ‘what’s a mathematician?’ ‘what is diversity?’ and ‘how do I become a doctor?’ were some of my personal highlights. Lots of these children were also coming over to tell us about the other exhibits that they’d seen that day (again, it could have been the lollipops!), showing that the demonstrations that were going on all day were really getting children excited whilst teaching them fun facts about science, technology, engineering and maths in the process.

For those that are on Instagram, follow us @scienceonapostcard. For those that aren’t, here’s our insta story from today 🙂

Thanks to all of the wonderful organisers and volunteers that helped out at Peterborough STEM Festival today – you were all incredible and made sure that the day went without a hitch! Well done, and enjoy the post-event warm fuzzy feelings as you continue to get positive feedback over the coming days. We hope to be back next year 🙂

For now, I’m off to climb into my giant hotel bed before the long drive back to Aberdeen tomorrow.

Living Near Peterborough and Have Some Free Time This Weekend?

What are you doing this weekend?

If you’re stuck for ideas, come and see me at Peterborough STEM Festival!

The STEM Festival in Peterborough is an event run completely by volunteers, and a passionate bunch they are too! This year the team have put together an incredible line up including:

  • TV presenter Maddie Moate who  will be doing an event linked to her Mission to Mars Astronaut Academy, and also a meet and greet
  • A tech-based escape room with BGL Group
  • Technology business Codem and their Sahara Force India F1 car and simulator
  • A Mad Science show featuring ‘flying toilet roll’, ‘eye-boggling erupting pipes’ and ‘cool dry ice’
  • Mathematician Katie Steckles’s show ‘The Mathematics of Paper’
  • Mathematician Dr Tom Crawford, aka Tom Rocks Maths, who will be talking about the science and maths behind a perfect penalty kick
  • Making the best paper plane with Thomas Cook
  • An introduction to coding with Vivacity Code Clubs

As I said earlier, I’ll be there too. I won’t be talking clinical trials though, instead I’m taking Science On A Postcard on the road! I’ll be there with my lovely partner selling enamel pins, postcards, notebooks, tote bags, pocket mirrors and more – all with a STEM twist!

Peterborough STEM Festival is completely free to attend, to make sure you don’t miss out grab your tickets here. Hopefully see you there 🙂

5 Podcasts You Should Listen To This Month

About a month after I handed my thesis in, I bought a new car. It was a very exciting day – it’s the same car that I had before, but with 100,000 miles less on the clock, and the addition of a USB port that means I can listen to stuff on my phone, through my car radio. I KNOW. It’s been a mind-blowing few weeks of discovery. I’ve listened to some absolutely brilliant podcasts, so I thought I’d start #Blogtober by sharing them; they’re all science/healthcare related, but with topics communicated in such personal and accessible ways that one of them genuinely made me cry.

Healthcare is HILARIOUS

What’s it about? Casey Quinlan describes her podcast as ‘Snark about Healthcare’ which covers things pretty well. She’s a ‘Comedy Health Analyst’ who advises people to stop screaming because laughing hurts less. A lot of her content focusses on the American healthcare system and the frankly laughable systems that it is made up of. It’s frustrating, upsetting, but with a brilliantly hopeful and rebellious streak.

Any standout episodes? The most recent one! #CochraneForAll – Bagpipes, science and crisis comms. My friend Lyuba Lytvyn is interviewed on this podcast, and she mentions me! Obviously, that’s not the only reason why this is a fantastic episode, but it helps. Aside from that though, the episode covers the need for healthcare consumers to be involved in research (#100in100), the importance of capacity building in patient and public involvement, and more from the Cochrane Colloquium that was held in Edinburgh in September. Also, the episode with Victor Montori as a guest is brilliant – listen to it, he’s calling for a revolution in healthcare, and he’s talking a lot of sense.

Links: Listen here | Support on Patreon here

Science Talk

What’s it about? This is a much more standard podcast than ‘Healthcare is HILARIOUS!’ – it’s an interview format that features various guests joining host Steve Mirsky each week to talk about the latest advances in science and technology. As well as podcasting, Steve is also an Editor and columnist at Scientific American.

Any standout episodes? The episode that first got me listening to this podcast was ‘Out with the Bad Science’, where Richard Harris (Science Correspondent for NPR) joined host Steve Mirsky to talk about the problem of poor quality science in the Biomedical Research community. He also discusses his book, ‘Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions‘ – I bought that book whilst I was still listening to this episode of the podcast, and I’ll be reading (and hopefully reviewing it on the blog) later this month. Going on what Richard Harris was saying during the podcast, I suspect it’s going to be brilliant.

Links: Listen here

The Story Collider

What’s it about? This podcast is probably my favourite of this entire list, because it’s so personal, so emotional and yet it’s still communicating science and stories from scientists. The show is presented by Erin Barker, a writer and storyteller, and Liz Neeley, a marine biologist and science communicator – the partnership between the two makes for an incredibly powerful podcast full of important stories that I’m very glad are being shared.

Any standout episodes? There are three episodes that have stood out to me whilst listening to the Story Collider back catalogue, one of which made me cry:

  1. Science Saved My Life – Stories About Life-Saving Passion
  2. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 1)
  3. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 2)

‘Science Saved My Life’ is the episode that had me in tears – particularly Rose DF‘s story; listen to it, please.

Links: Listen here

The Recommended Dose

What’s it about? The Recommended Dose is a podcast produced by Cochrane Australia and presented by Ray Moynihan – a multi-award winning journalist and health researcher. ‘This new series tackles the big questions in health and offers new insights, evidence, and ideas from some of the world’s most fascinating and prolific researchers, writers and thinkers,’ says Ray. ‘Its aim is to promote a more questioning approach to health care.’

Any standout episodes? Again, the standout episode has been the episode that first drew me in and pushed me to start listening to the rest of the series; in this case, it was episode 14 that featured Gordon Guyatt as Ray’s guest. Professor Gordon Guyatt is known as the ‘Godfather of Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)’, and this podcast is a brilliant look at his career, his beliefs in terms of why he coined the phrase, what evidence-based medicine really means in the current healthcare climate, and what the future might hold for EBM. I’ll be doing an ‘Inspiring People’ blog post on Gordon Guyatt later on this month, so keep an eye out for that if you’d like to know more about him and how he’s impacted my views on medicine and healthcare too.

Links: Listen here

Strange Bird

What’s it about? Strange Bird is hosted by Mona Chalabi, the Data Editor of the Guardian US, and it focusses on the use of numbers to help answer questions on difficult topics. The aim of this is ultimately to make people feel less lonely – to show that the birds that seem like strange outliers often aren’t.

Any standout episodes? Strange Bird only has one episode at the moment, so clearly that’s what I’m basing my entire recommendation on. That episode, ‘Miscarriage’, sees Mona Chalabi (who I’ve fan-girled over in the past) talk about this sensitive subject using numbers to help her answer questions on the topic. The conversations and thoughts can be uncomfortable – in this episode Mona discovers that her Mum had a miscarriage – but it’s presented in a really gentle and caring way.

Links: Listen here

What podcasts have you been listening to recently? Leave a comment with your recommendations and I’ll be sure to check them out 🙂

Academic Blogging – Why and How?

This afternoon I gave a talk about academic blogging for the University of Aberdeen’s Qualitative Research Network. I promised I’d share the slides from the session, so here they are (blogging about blogging.. #meta)

Links to the various people/blogs/resources that I referenced during the talk:

My Twitter: www.twitter.com/heidirgardner
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust: www.wcmt.org.uk
Soph Arthur: www.twitter.com/sophtalkssci / www.sophtalksscience.wordpress.com
Rebecca Hall: www.twitter.com/RebeccaJHall13 / www.biologybex.wordpress.com
Andrea H.: www.twitter.com/phd_fashionista / www.phdfashionista.com
Alex Fitzpatrick: www.twitter.com/ArchaeologyFitz / www.animalarchaeology.com
Nicola: www.twitter.com/fresh_science / www.freshscience-nicola.blogspot.co.uk/
That Biologist: www.twitter.com/thatbiologist / www.thatbiologist.wordpress.com
Michelle: www.twitter.com/Silli_Scientist / www.alloksci.com
Scientific Beauty: www.twitter.com/sciencebeaut / www.thescientificbeauty.com
Arts & Humanities Research Council’s North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership blog: www.nwcdtpblog.wordpress.com
Research the Headlines (The contributors to Research the Headlines are all current or former members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh‘s Young Academy of Scotland): www.researchtheheadlines.org
Students 4 Best Evidence: www.students4bestevidence.net
Let’s Talk Academia: www.letstalkacademia.blogspot.com
Goop (please, please only use this as a guide for what not to do with blogging – keep your integrity and blog about topics with evidence behind them!): www.goop.com
Jade Eggs for Your Yoni: www.goop.com/wellness/sexual-health/better-sex-jade-eggs-for-your-yoni
Dr Jen Gunter: www.drjengunter.wordpress.com
Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m a GYN and your vaginal jade eggs are a bad idea: www.drjengunter.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/dear-gwyneth-paltrow-im-a-gyn-and-your-vaginal-jade-eggs-are-a-bad-idea
12 (More) Reasons to Start a Jade Egg Practice: www.goop.com/wellness/sexual-health/12-more-reasons-to-start-a-jade-egg-practice
If Gwyneth Paltrow is so effing tired maybe she shouldn’t put jade eggs in her vagina: www.drjengunter.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/if-gwyneth-paltrow-is-so-effing-tired-maybe-she-shouldnt-put-jade-eggs-in-her-vagina
Gwyneth Paltrow and GOOP still want you to put a jade egg in your vagina. It’s still a bad idea.: www.drjengunter.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/gwyneth-paltrows-jade-eggs-again
Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So the World Listens: www.amazon.co.uk/Do-Story-World-Listens-Books/dp/1907974059
Science Blogging: The Essential Guide: www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Blogging-Essential-Christie-Wilcox/dp/0300197551
Don’t be SUCH a Scientist: www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Be-Such-Scientist-Substance/dp/1597265632
(I also reviewed this book – take a look here)
Information is Beautiful: www.amazon.co.uk/Information-Beautiful-David-McCandless/dp/0007294662 / www.informationisbeautiful.net
Knowledge is Beautiful: www.amazon.co.uk/Knowledge-Beautiful-David-McCandless/dp/0007427921
The Conversation: www.theconversation.com
Mona Chalabi: www.twitter.com/MonaChalabi / www.instagram.com/monachalabi