Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter @erinellyse.
Bad science makes me cringe.
With a Canadian election having just finished and an American election gearing up, bad science and statements that conflict with evidence have been coming from the mouths of politicians, journalists, and family and friends more often than usual. Grad students everywhere listen and cringe. How can they twist, misuse, or blatantly ignore the research to which we’ve dedicated our lives? Why do they ignore the evidence?
Politicians are too easy a target here—their goal is to get votes, not to make sure that the intricacies of their views are understood. So then, who is responsible? The media certainly plays an important role, but most journalists depend on the experts to identify and talk about important issues. Who are these experts? Often, they are the grad students and researchers who are dedicating their life to these issues. We are the experts.
I started thinking about this when the Canadian election began, but I got stuck on how to take the idea from theory to reality. What can we do to ensure that the public has the right information to make informed decisions on issues? When values conflict with the evidence, is it possible to change people’s minds? Maybe not, but there are those who want to understand the issues and make informed decisions, and for their sake, we have to put the information out there. I don’t have the answers, but what follows are some starting steps that I hope will at least plant some seeds of thought.
Recognize your expertise
I am a researcher in nanobiotechnology engineering specializing in advanced methods for biomolecule detection—by this description, I know a whole lot about very little. In reality, my expertise stretches far beyond what my day-to-day work entails. I am an engineer, a scientist, a researcher; I know how to read about science and I’m in the privileged position of having access to the journals that talk about it and the people who do it. I know how to think about and analyze issues in science and engineering in a way that most people don’t.
On the other hand, I can have opinions on issues in economics, but I depend on others to explain and interpret the data and ideas in order to form them. While I’d love to become an expert in economics, in sociology, in global governance… we can only do so much. So since we can’t expect others to learn the background required to fully analyze an issue, it’s up to us to provide them with the information.
Tell a story
Explaining complex issues simply is a skill. We’ve given some tips before—check out our posts on mistakes we make when explaining our research, how to explain your research to your grandmother, and using storytelling to explain science. That last one has been sticking out to me a lot lately. If a scientific idea becomes popular, it’s usually through the use of a good story. Think about the great nature shows—Planet Earth and March of the Penguins come to mind—or the rapidly increasing popularity of podcasts like Radiolab, which looks at new, fascinating research using a captivating narrative, or the structure of nearly all of the popular TED talks. These have characters, narratives, and tension-driven plots. And judging by their popularity and the excitement they incite, they get their point across really well.
Research shows that our brains love stories. A good story will hold our attention and transport us into the characters’ world and it turns out that this is a pretty powerful way to teach and get a point across. So when it comes to explaining ideas that are considered by many to be too boring or too complicated, telling a story is a good way to do it.
How do you tell a good story? The best way to learn is to listen to others who do it well. Watch TED talks and listen to podcasts; think about what they’re doing. For those of us in science, some great tips are outlined here. Remember that the way to hold attention is to develop tension. And don’t forget the characters, whether they are the people affected by the issue, the policy-makers, or the researchers themselves. And of course, practice makes perfect.
Find an outlet
It’s one thing to want the public to have access to the information needed to make good decisions, but it’s another thing to do it.
Start small. When your neighbor talks about how he heard on the radio that global warming isn’t really happening, have a conversation about it. When your aunt questions whether or not to vaccinate her children, speak up. It’s true that these situations sometimes have to be approached with care, but if you approach it from the position of an expert providing information (maybe through a captivating story?) rather than an opponent trying to change a view, you may have more luck. “Well,” you might say to your neighbour, “Polar bears in the arctic are starving because they can’t find the floating ice that they need to hunt on. It’s all melting. And the studies show that pretty much all scientists [over 97% of them, if you want to be precise] agree that the temperature increase is because of rising levels of greenhouse gases. But what was it exactly that you heard?” If he’s interested, you’ve just created the potential for discussion.
If you can, reach out further. Write for your local newspaper. Take every opportunity you can to be part of the media and do it well. Join an organization that supports the issues you care about, like a local or national science outreach organization. While providing information to make informed decisions need not be partisan, joining up with a political party that you feel best follows evidence-based decision-making practices could be another way to get information out there. For tips on speaking up, check out Patrick’s recent post. We’re all busy, but if you can find the time, think about it as a great way to use your skill set to better the world.
Not all grad students will have the same views on political issues, but nearly all of us will agree on the importance of evidence-based policy-making. We can provide the public with the information needed to know who is proposing policies based on evidence, and who isn’t. Information spreads, so even if all we do is help our family and friends to understand the issues from an evidence-based perspective, we’ve made a difference.
[Image by Ian Muttoo and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]
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