What are you paying attention to? What do you scroll past on social media, or tune out when someone else is speaking?
A new study published in the journal Vaccine looks at the way different groups responded when confronted with vaccination arguments. In this work, authors Helge Giese, Hansjörg Neth, Mehdi Moussaïd, Cornelia Betsch, and Wolfgang Gaissmaier from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the University of Erfurt (all in Germany) refute a common assumption held by those who study the communication of sensitive or political topics. The widely-held understanding is that exposure to a message negating a person’s existing point of view, will create a rebound effect that will move their opinion even farther away from the message than where it started. This study contradicts the rebound effect hypothesis, suggesting instead that selective attention means that exposure to a contradictory message has little impact on the person hearing it.
Selective attention can mean ignoring the message entirely, or surrounding oneself with others who do not believe the message. Selective attention can also mean tuning out contradictory messages and only tuning into to messages that confirm existing points of view. We are what we pay attention to.
This message is not new per se, and has existed in some ancient schools of thought, such as buddhism, which suggest that mindfulness has power to shape reality. In this line of thinking, we are both what we pay attention to, and are disempowered when we fail to pay attention. Enlightenment is somewhere close to full attention.
In the case of misinformation spread and polarization, I think we all need to ask ourselves what we’re paying attention to, and what we dismiss because it doesn’t fit our conceptions of the world. We need to pay special attention to what we dismiss. In this case, a little dose of mindfulness directed at our own response to contradictory information will help reduce each one of our tendencies towards polarization and group-think.
Today I want to highlight a really stunning example of Scholarly Communication on Twitter. Chelsea Vowel, Twitter handle @apihtawikosisan has set the bar high, taking a talk that she has put together, and reproducing it as a Twitter thread, for the reason, she says of initiating a broader conversation. I’ve embedded the first tweet here, please read the whole thread – it’s worth it.
I've been giving a talk lately that I'm going to go ahead and share with you here, because we need to have these discussions. I call it "Law For the Apocalypse: Kinship out of Fracture."
This post is an excerpt taken from my upcoming online training resource: Science Communication Best Practices. It is based on work I completed in a MITACS supported Canadian Science Policy Fellowship with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Not My Job: Why Scientists Should Also be Communicators
As a scientist, you may feel as though you have your hands full conducting your science, and that it is other peoples’ jobs to communicate about it. After all, your department, university or lab already has communication personnel, so why can’t they do it?
We’ve heard this comment before, and even though professional communicators possess a lot of knowledge about communication, there are very good reasons why every scientist should learn to communicate about their work. For example, studies have shown that people are less likely to trust information they receive about climate science if that information is shared by politicians or professional communicators, however, people will be more likely to trust the same information if it is shared by scientists themselves.
This blog post by Scientific American gives some compelling reasons why scientists should talk directly with the public, rather than going through intermediaries. It highlights the ways that the passion that scientists have for their work can inspire others, and gives resources for those people interested in becoming better science communicators. Furthermore, most scientists, including government scientists, are in roles that are mandated to serve the public. Public service means communicating your findings to others in ways that are accessible to everyone.
Nobody understands your topic better than you do. You have spent years devoted to every nuance of your area of study. This means that a professional communicator can not do your topic justice the way you can. If they get questions for additional details, they may not be able to provide the best answer. On the other hand, you are able to provide responses to many possible questions because you know your topic so well. By taking the time to communicate your science directly, you are ensuring that people get access to the best information possible, because it comes from you.
The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a type of cognitive bias in which people assess their own knowledge of a topic or subject area as being greater than it actually is. Psychologists note that it tends to occur frequently in those people with a small amount of knowledge on a topic. In other words, it takes a certain amount of knowledge before we can actually know how little we know.
Coral reefs are among the most beautiful and complex ecosystems in the world. However, most people will never experience moving through one because unless you are in the right location and have specialized training and equipment, it is physically impossible to visit a coral reef.
So how can most people relate to something they cannot directly ecperience themselves? How do we work to develop an awareness of the beauty and need to protect coral reefs around the world? Or to put it another way, how do we make something like that accessible to a larger number of people?
In my sustainability communication work, I’m always interested in the new and innovative methods that are being developed to teach people about climate change science and policy. Recently the Canadian Energy Policy Solutions Simulator came across my desk. This simulator, developed by the Pembina Institute, allows the user to see the emissions savings of different policy instruments that the government could introduce, and how close these different policies may or may not help Canada get to our emissions reduction targets.
In recognition of the Canadian winter and the polar vortex, today I’m going to use the concept of wind chill to discuss science communication.
Recently, a 2016 article by Vox has been popping up in my social media feeds. TItled Wind chill is a terrible, misleading metric, it discusses how, over the years, a wind chill index has been replaced by the concept of a temperature equivalent, and it argues that this temperature equivalent obscures as much about the weather conditions as it reveals. The article goes on to suggest that we do away with wind chill altogether, and instead adopt more accurate metrics of the temperature, such as the Universal Temperature Climate Index.