Today, I gave a presentation on the science of science communication at the SciCom15 event in Athlone, Ireland. I kicked off an hour-long panel of the science of science communication by talking about how I see scicomm as both a science AND an art.
There is currently an expanding body of literature on the science of science communication, and yet we must still rely on the art of communication, and of storytelling, to reach a non-specialist audience with stories of scientific research.
“Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now.” - Quentin Cooper
I talked about my own transition from a biological engineering PhD program to a PhD in mass communication - and how it happened via my From The Lab Bench blog. I started my blog in 2011 with Nature Network, which later become SciLogs.com. Through blogging, I discovered my love for writing and telling colorful stories about science - and the rest is history.
You might recognize this image. It is an image that accompanied NASA’s September 2015 release of a report about hydrated salts, or evidence of water, on Mars. This image circulated on Twitter and other social media channels, and was also used by several news media outlets.
I talked during the session about how the (news) media is increasingly the central means for American publics to learn about scientific advancements and gain scientific knowledge, outside of formal education. I also talked about where Americans get their science news. So for example, for Americans who heard about the Nature Geoscience report of hydrated salts on Mars, where or how did they hear about it?
According to the National Science Foundation 2014 Indicators report, 16% of Americans follow science and technology (S&T) news “very closely." This number isn't entirely encouraging for most science communicators. However, Americans generally report relatively high interest in S&T issues compared to other countries. So how is this interest translated into engagement with science? With S&T stories composing less than 2% of US news coverage in general, Americans interested in particular scientific questions, topics or issues are increasingly turning to alternative online outlets in search of science info.
According to the NSF 2014 Indicators report, “[t]he percentage of Americans getting information about current events from the Internet has increased steadily since about 2001, and the percentage using newspapers for current events has declined.” For news specifically about science, Americans today rely more on the Internet than on television. In 2012, according to data from the General Social Survey, 42% of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of science and technology information. Of these, more than 60% are using online newspapers, around 11% are using online magazines, and the rest are using alternative online media including social media and blogs. This data suggests that online versions of traditional news sources and science magazines remain an incredibly important venue of science learning and engagement.
We can use the Mars Water story as a case study to look at US coverage of a major scientific finding.
NASA issued a release on Twitter, which immediately receive a huge amount of feedback. They posted a tumblr blog post about the discovery that day. Meanwhile, Alexandra Witze, correspondent for Nature in the US, live-tweeted background information about the story during the NASA press conference briefing.
Around 11am on September 28, 2015, as soon as the embargo on the Nature Geoscience paper lifted, specialty S&T outlets, including Wired and Ars Technica (Water flows on present-day Mars), Gizmodo (NASA Says There's Strong Evidence of Liquid Water on Mars) published stories on the announcement. Large media outlets who had access to the embargoed Nature Geoscience paper, including the AP Press, the New York Times (Mars Shows Signs of Having Flowing Water, Possible Niches for Life, NASA Says) and National Geographic, published their Mars Water stories a little later that day.
Later on September 28, we saw more contextualized coverage of the story by other specialty outlets. This included a great "impact" story by Maddie Stone for Gizmodo (What Kinds of Life Forms Could Actually Live on Mars?). Stone used her background in microbiology to give readers a different spin on the water discovery story.
Later on September 28, we saw coverage from the U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Reuters (Water flows on Mars, raising possibility that planet could support life – scientists) and the Washington Post. Several mainstream TV newscasts also mentioned the discovery.
Overnight and into the next day, we saw something that has become a norm in the march of science news coverage online - context provide by specialty online science outlets and science blogs. Akshat Rathi, writing for Quartz, wrote about the impact of the study for future explorations of Mars: "If there is liquid water on Mars, no one—not even NASA—can get anywhere near it." On her science blog for The Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla wrote about how media coverage of the NASA announcement played out and the implications of the hydrated salts discovery on Mars. She also wrote about the history of this discovery, and explained how the discovery of liquid water was not entirely surprising, that much previous data had suggested this possibility.
From coverage of the Mars Water story, we see an interesting "ecosystem" pattern in how science news is covered in online media. While larger online science magazines and science news outlets are competing with traditional and legacy media to break news of prominent scientific discoveries, other online science media and science blogs are going beyond the straight news coverage to provide context we might not otherwise get from media reports of scientific research studies.
We've also seen the rise of the social web as a source of scientific information. Above is a Snapchat story from National Geographic. As millennials move to the social web to communicate with their peers and browse entertaining content, NatGeo and other specialty outlets are providing “bite-size” content designed specifically for consumption on mobile apps such as Snapchat. But does this increase scientific literacy?
While Americans generally express a high interest in science and positive attitudes toward science (79% of Americans believe science has had a positive effect on society), they perform poorly on general science knowledge tests. The over-saturation of science information online, and even the rise of bite-size science like NatGeo’s Snapchat feature, has been conceptualized as increasing specialized knowledge, or knowledge of “science you can use,” but leading to overall ignorance about scientific issues and methods in general. Online science media primarily caters to those who already have an interest in science and those with relatively greater levels of education. This can lead to what is known as a "knowledge-ignorance paradox" - increased specialized scientific knowledge, or knowledge of science factoids or science that is applicable in solving everyday problems, but overall scientific ignorance. The online science information space can also lead to an expanding gap in scientific literacy between those who use and those who don't use the Internet to access science information.
So the question of whether catchy and bite-size online science can lead to increased scientific literacy is a tricky one. However, if accessible science info online, like NatGeo’s Snapchat content, fosters increased interest in science, than it may indirectly lead to increased science literacy/knowledge. Why? Because interest in science predicts using the Internet to search for more science info. It's a cycle. Relatively more science education and interest in science leads to increased use of the internet, and critical consumption of internet science leads to greater scientific knowledge.
With the Internet and the social web increasingly serving up Americans' science information, it's worth looking at science bloggers' practices to see what type of content they are providing in the larger science media ecosystem. According to some of my dissertation research forthcoming in JCOM, science bloggers see themselves most often engaging as explainers, translating science for non-specialist audiences, and public intellectuals, providing their expert opinions on scientific advancements and issues.
I then talked about my current research surveying people who read science blogs, to investigate who they are and WHY they read science blogs. The top responses chosen among motivations to read science blogs among ~3,000 participants included: Because it stimulates my curiosity, as an educational tool, and for information I don't find in traditional media. These motivations lend further evidence to the idea that people who use the web to access their science news and information tend to be those who are already interested in and knowledgeable about science (they are actively using blogs as an educational resource) and that science blogs provide information and context not available in mainstream news coverage of science.
One particularly interesting case study from my survey of science blog readers comes from the readers of the Inkfish blog at Discover Magazine. Elizabeth Preston wrote a blog post on a "mysterious whale seen for the first time." The blog post resulted in a large percentage of survey respondents who had never read the blog before. In describing their motivations to use the Inkfish blog, many of these users simply stated "curiosity." One reader said, "It [the blog post] was about a little known type of whale that I knew nothing about. I had to know." (emphasis added). So by having an amazing image and video of a whale "never seen before," and a headline straight to the point that introduced mystery and intrigue, Preston was able to capture the attention of new audiences and engage them to the extent that they not only read her blog for the first time, but answered a survey about it.
This is where science communication becomes an art. Through the use of mystery, engaging visuals, elements of surprise and intrigue, and storytelling, science writers can capture new audiences that at least have the potential to be interested by stories of scientific discovery.
*A correction to my speech above: NASA announced water on Mars on a Monday, not a Friday.