The Zombie Idea of Science Communications

October 4, 2013

Image credit: Steve Baker/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

So much science communications work must speak to specific audiences, often at a hyperlocal level.

And yet science communicators keep dreaming and scheming about how to reach everyone and make them understand how important and cool science is — at a time when both “mass” and “media” have exploded into billions of pieces.  (That “Breaking Bad” series finale “everybody” watched? Got a little more than 10 million viewers — not exactly the Super Bowl.)

For me, this is the zombie idea of science communications: That we could attract massive crowds…if our scientists were only emotional enough, or great storytellers, or were more modest, or tweeted in the right way at the right time in conversation with the right people.

All those qualities are useful. But the desire for mass appeal doesn’t just distract us from our real work — it prevents us from developing the techniques and the data with which to carry it out.

This tension was palpable at last week’s second annual Science of Science Communications conference, held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC — the most anticipated event of the year in our field.

I joined hundreds of other practitioners, scholars and media who’d gathered for two days to hear presentations and discussions on the latest in science communications research. The conference was often fascinating, an intellectual feast.

But the main theme — how do we engineer broad uptake of science and scientific findings, particularly through social media? — had the feel of a geek trying to work out a formula for getting asked to the prom.

Market research and branding gurus were trotted out to deliver mass marketing insights, which amounted to “figure out how to spend more money on marketing.” Penn’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson gave a keynote about countering attacks on scientific integrity that, when boiled down, blamed scientists’ arrogant presentation style for the public’s deep division on climate change. (Many are guilty on the arrogance charge, but that’s hardly the whole picture.)

Two long sessions were devoted to how we could better use social networks, with presentation titles such as “What Makes Online Content Viral?” (The big secrets? Make your abstract more interesting and useful, emotionally resonant, and written in positive language if at all possible.)

The vibe about Twitter was adulatory and not especially insightful. Deb Roy, chief media scientist for Twitter who also teaches at MIT, showed elaborate data visualizations of how fans of specific TV shows (like “Breaking Bad”) were using Twitter to talk to each other — “a new hybrid kind of communication,” he said.

But the relevance of this alliance to science communications practice was murky; Roy’s only suggestion was that the science-interested form their own TV-Twitter conversations…perhaps on the chemistry of “Breaking Bad.” Hmmm.

Earlier, Duncan Watts of Microsoft admitted his research shows that it’s basically impossible to get anything to go viral in social media — and that what does can’t be predicted or engineered. Trying to target “influencers” to help your content go big, he said, is no sure thing, either: most things highly visible users tweet don’t start cascades, which is why it’s folly to pay Kim Kardashian $10K to tweet something for you.

So what should we do? Go after “ordinary influencers,” said Watts, to “harness small, average improvements” in the predictability of your content’s social media performance. In other words, what most of us are already doing on these platforms, to uncertain effect.

While the science communications community is still caught up in big-audience dreams, scientists are pivoting toward finding audiences for targeted applications of climate findings — a paradigm shift that will need a parallel revolution in communications tactics.

Look at Jon Foley’s new essay in Ensia, “Breaking the Cycle of Climate Inaction.” Tired of national and international inertia on climate change, Foley is leading an effort focused on what he calls “planet levers” — the places and sectors where action could make an outsized impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities and states are such levers, he says. Tropical deforestation, agricultural emissions and black carbon are others — and the best way to push any of these is to concentrate on a handful of countries and players, not the entire world. Instead of waiting for national and international policymakers to seize the moment, Foley argues, let’s seize it ourselves by going after these kinds of smaller wins:

“Climate solutions based on these planet levers could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions with pragmatic, targeted actions that move beyond old debates and the current political paralysis. None of them requires the U.S. Congress or all 193 members of the U.N. to make a decision. They don’t require a wholesale transformation of the entire global economy. They won’t encounter the full-fledged resistance of the fossil fuel industry. Instead, they focus on three or four regions at a time, with perhaps a handful of industries working in cooperation with nonprofit groups and local governments, to make tremendous progress on targeted emissions reduction. And most of these solutions would pay tremendous economic and health benefits that go far beyond their impact on climate change.”

The question for science communicators is: Do we have the insights to help such efforts reach their potential? Or are we still stuck in mass media fantasies that have no relevance to effective work?

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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