Science Conference Sizzles

More than 250 seminars, 1,150 attendees, hot-button topics ranging from climate change and fish feminization to pesticides and water quality, plus Sizzle, a global warming mockumentary, added up to a rousing success for the 5th Biennial CALFED Science Conference. One highlight was scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson's “Don’t be SUCH a Scientist” talk which offered ways on how to communicate science to a broader audience.

His first tip?

  1. Don’t be so cerebral

    Olson is a former tenured professor of biology of marine research with a doctorate from Harvard who now makes feature films that address science issues like the debate of intelligent design and evolution (Flock of Dodos) and global warming science (Sizzle). He also speaks about the knowledge he has gained in seeking to communicate science to broader audiences.

    “Science think” is the tendency to believe in the power of information alone, Olson said during his talk. However, scientific information, or substance alone, is not effective, particularly in today’s age of style. Substance vs. style is objective vs. subjective or doing vs. communicating.

    To appeal to a larger, broader audience, says Olson, one has to grab them in the head, the heart and the gut, which leads into his second tip:

  2. Don’t be so literal minded.

    It’s important to arouse the audience’s interest, and then fulfill their desires, Olson said. Science communication goes wrong by committing either 1) errors of fact or 2) errors of boredom. The type 1 error is a false positive; the type 2 error is a false negative. That leads to his next point:

  3. Don’t be such a lousy storyteller.

    He cited the global warming documentary, Too Hot Not to Handle, which featured contributions from leading scientists and was embraced by the scientific community for its accuracy, yet didn’t garner a large audience. Then Olson pointed to Al Gore’s Academy-Award winning An Inconvenient Truth, which has been criticized for scientific inaccuracies, but was an audience and critical favorite.

  4. Don’t be so unlikable.

    Olson told of an evolution vs. intelligent design debate on a college campus, where the scientist debating the intelligent design speaker was angry and condescending. As a result, the students left favoring the other, nicer speaker - the intelligent design proponent. It’s important to remember that the baselines for effective communication are: information, emotion and humor, Olson says.

    His final tip?

  5. Be the Voice of Science – like Carl Sagan.

Below are two versions of a scientific communication from a flyer designed to attract an audience to a brown-bag lunch talk. Version 1 is a typical description for attracting scientists. Version 2 was rewritten to appeal to a broader audience.

  1. Dr. K. will discuss his project that is investigating effects of environmental stressors such as selenium, mercury, salinity and temperature for two native species of sturgeon. The project objective is to better understand why green sturgeon populations are declining faster than white sturgeon populations. Study findings will inform population-level models and contribute to better water management decisions. For example, the researchers have discovered that green sturgeon are much more sensitive to levels of selenium than white sturgeon. By comparing effects in green and white sturgeon, the researchers hope to unravel the mechanistic molecular basis for the different level of sensitivity to selenium. Other study results, including effects of methylmercury, simulation of tidal cycle/climate change scenarios (temperature + salinity change), and the current status of identification of novel molecular biomarkers of stress will also be discussed.

  2. Why are green sturgeon populations declining faster than white sturgeon populations?

    Environmental stressors could be a cause. Researchers have discovered that green sturgeon are much more sensitive to levels of selenium than white sturgeon. Join us for a brown-bag talk where Dr. K. will discuss his project that is investigating effects of such environmental stressors as selenium, mercury, salinity and temperature for two native species of sturgeon. By comparing effects in both green and white sturgeon, his research team hopes to unravel the molecular basis for the different levels of sensitivity these fish species have to selenium.

Which do you like better?