Communicating Science in the Post-Truth Era | TEDxKAUST

By | August 14, 2017

My TEDx is live! Here’s the video of my talk. I’ve also included the full transcript at the bottom of this post for those who prefer to scan.

Mine was one of nine talks in a full-day TEDx event hosted here at KAUST. I was particularly touched by Tsiki’s talk about the impact of education in Madagascar, but I think all of them are well-worth watching, especially for my colleagues here at KAUST.

This talk could not have happened without the support of so many people who deserve acknowledgement:

  • The two brilliant scientists who I mentioned in the talk: Susann Diercks and Katharine Hayhoe. These women are the embodiment of the future of scientific communication! (Follow them on social media!)
  • In the process of creating the talk, I consulted with many scientists and academics, communication professionals, and other incredibly brilliant people to ensure that the message would resonate with a wide range of audiences. Thank you so much to the my collaborators for your kindness and generosity!
  • Last but not least, thank you to the talented event organizing committee who volunteered for months to make this event happen.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can improve your own scientific communication, I can suggest the following resources:

If my talk resonated with you, I hope you will leave a comment or take a moment to share it with your networks.

Full Text: 

I am here to sell you a fantastic new product which will change your life forever. This amber teething necklace is guaranteed to make your baby more comfortable while teething.It’s all due to the succinic acid which has scientifically proven anti-inflammatory properties. And it’s yours for the low low price of 20 dollars a pop!

The only problem: It’s a lie. It’s deceit. There is no peer-reviewed evidence to support the claim that amber necklaces can reduce teething pain.

But people believe it and they’re buying the necklaces. I’m a mom and it’s a claim I’ve heard over and over – by my friends, on internet mommy groups, and on blog posts written by women who are selling them. But I’ve also spent the last 10 years working in communication with academic and technology communities. And this overlap of my work and home life made me realize how academia should be responding to the new ways people are sharing scientific information.

It also reminds me of this concept we’ve been hearing about in the news. “The post-truth era”. The idea of post-truth rose to significance during the political conversations surrounding the “truthiness” of last year’s Brexit campaign in United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It was widely reported that the voting public didn’t really care if the points the politicians were making were possible or even true. Just like the amber necklaces – People cared more about how the story made them feel, and about how that picture fit into their world view.

Post-truth became such an important concept in 2016, that the oxford dictionary named it word of the year.

Today, truth feels less-relevant than ever before – and I blame the internet. Don’t get me wrong! The internet is a beautiful place – where we can create community and friendship and access the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of a hand. But, it’s not always serving in our best interest. Where there is a buck to be made, people will make it – especially in the case of the internet where anonymity is obtainable. Whether it’s fake news websites shared on Facebook, marketers trying to sell us their products, or lobbyists vying for attention for their causes, there are big, powerful groups telling really compelling stories. Some are very good at misleading us for their own benefit.

Say, for example, that I believe that little green men are flying around our planet in UFOs. I can find all kinds of sources that back up my claim. I can find blog posts and YouTube videos, meetup groups and all sorts of pseudo-science to confirm my belief in the existence of little green men in flying saucers. I might even believe that there is a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of little green men and tell myself that’s why there is no supporting body of peer-reviewed information on the topic. This assertion may seem ridiculous to you and me, but this is “truth” to a fair number of people.

To combat this kind of nonsense, fact-checking websites started popping up on the internet. Fact-checking was supposed to be the definitive source to discern truth from less reliable sources like chain-mail, urban folklore, ads, or “ambitious” politicians. It was supposed to solve the problem of people who lie in public forums.
But even the credibility of supposedly credible sources is questioned when opinion is stronger than truth. People have been taught to question their sources, but what constitutes a “trusted source” seems also to be different from person-to-person based on their culture, political leanings, and life experiences.
The scientific method, too, was designed to overcome these biases, but, unfortunately, it seems people are valuing opinion over scientific evidence, even when the evidence shared in peer-reviewed journals is overwhelming.

Let’s take for example something more practical than UFOs: the public conversation in America around climate science.

The validity of human-caused climate change has been backed by both peer-reviewed scientific study and a near-unanimous consensus in the scientific community.  A 2013 review published in ERL showed that 97% of climate scientists agree that there is a human-caused global warming trend. (That kind of consensus is unheard of!)
But, incredibly, a 2015 study from Yale showed that 30% of Americans believe something different. So, if there is near-consensus in the scientific community, why is there still a debate among the public about the validity of climate change?

This is post-truth.

I think most of us are willing to admit that the scientific community as a whole has been slow to respond to the changing media landscape (By the way, that’s why fact-checking websites became the default on the internet rather than peer-reviewed journal articles). But the scientific community can’t ignore this post-truth mentality.
If enough people believe climate change is a hoax and they’re influential enough, they might be able to stop government, industry, and nonprofit players from allocating funds to climate research. And funding is what drives science!

To remain relevant, academia must adapt and respond to the problems that the internet revolution and the post-truth era are raising. Fundamentally, the way that scientists communicate hasn’t changed much since the first scientific journals debuted in the 1600s. Scientists are taught to publish precise and detailed papers in peer-reviewed journals, and the articles are aimed at informing other scientists. Compounding the issue, papers published in these journals hard for non-scientists to understand and they’re generally only available to those people working at institutions which are rich enough to afford subscriptions. Put simply, scientists talk to other scientists and more often than not, leave the public out of the loop.

But, the internet has disrupted traditional media and it has disrupted traditional communication. Now it’s time for academia to capitalize on this disruption.
To combat a culture of misinformation, it is the responsibility of universities today to re-think the incentive structure for communication in academia. We need to create incentives for scientists that place more emphasis on public communication.

I get it… Demands on scientists’ time are aready daunting. Most of their effort is devoted to discovery, publishing in traditional journals, and acquiring funding.
But emphasizing public communication in addition to traditional peer-review methods when it comes to the hiring and promoting of scientists could have a major impact for universities – especially with regard to improving reputation and increasing overall funding. Of course, the peer-review process will continue to be an essential part of the equation. But, by incentivizing scientists to share their findings with the general public, we might just find that the impact is as great or even greater than the communication revolution that is already occurring in other industries today.

So, assuming scientists see the opportunity, feel the responsibility, and are appropriately incentivized, how can we support them as they begin their communication with the public?

To bridge the gap between scientists and the relatively new ways that people are getting information via the internet, universities are employing professional communicators – like me. Most universities have communication departments that are aimed – in part – at translating science to the masses. But I’ll never be able to tell your story better than you can tell it yourself. As a professional, I can support you by shaping massaging, building communities, and making beautiful visuals to help you tell your story better. But the gist and the power will always come directly from the source of the message. There is no better spokesperson for your work than you.

I like to remind scientists 3 things as they begin communicating with the public:

First, Be Accessible. If you are serious about your research making real-world impact, communicating about your work beyond your network of potential collaborators is essential. Traditionally, this has meant getting your research covered in the news. But you can also start by using social media. Write a blog, talk about your work on twitter, or do an “ask me anything” on Reddit. How you choose to do it will be deeply personal, but by making your research accessible to a general public, you’re taking the first step. It takes your conclusions out of the scientific echochamber and empowers the general public to have access to your work.

Second. Be Clear. As scientists, you’re trained to focus on small details, but it is your ability to explain the overarching story of your work, and your field of science that will help you most. So, begin with the big picture — the implications of your research — rather than trying to explain your hypothesis or conclusions with precision and detail.
The goal is to get people to buy-in to you as an expert, and the kind of impact your work can have.

With this in mind, you’ll want to share your message in a way that your audience can understand. Use plain English, and frame your messages in a way that is both personal and real to your audience. Think about who you are speaking to, and use language, concepts, and analogies they can understand, and most importantly, relate it back to why your work will benefit them. I’m not suggesting you dumb your science down. The public is full of really smart people. But remember, the goal isn’t simply to get more people to understand what you do. The goal is also to get people to recognize the implications of your research, for themselves and for society.

Third, be honest. Don’t succumb to post-truth! The post-truth era will be hard on academia, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the scientific method. It’s an enduring foundation. But just because you’re right doesn’t mean anyone will listen.

As scientists, you’ll get something out of all this, too. Communicating outside of your scientific area will give you perspective that enables you to understand where your research fits into the wider-world. Being a thought-leader on your topic will enable you to guide the public conversation and shape the public understanding of your field. And from a financial perspective, this will support a more favorable funding environment for your wider research area. Remember, funders give money to fix issues that they understand and funders give money to fix issues people are talking about.

There are quite a few scientists today who have already put these pieces together and are pushing their research forward through public communication. Let me share two of them with you:

Locally, I enjoy following scientists here at KAUST on social media. One of them, Susann Diercks, is a young, up and coming scientist who goes by the name scientificdiver  on instagram. There, she shares lots of pictures of her fieldwork collecting giant clams in the Red Sea. Her goal is to figure out how important the clams are to overall reef health.  She shares beautiful photos relating to the process of her work and also information of general interest about plants and animals in the sea. Her communication efforts are accessible, clear, and honest – they’re digestible to general public while still maintaining scientific credibility.  What’s more, her social media posts enable her to connect with people all around the world and her efforts are increasing attention for her work both within her field and for the general public. Sharing the stories behind her research findings makes her more credible and makes it more likely for people to discover her findings and want to support her work.

Globally, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is also using these principles to make a significant impact for climate research. She is aggregating her findings and research findings from others in her industry and sharing them at high-profile events and with high-impact media. She has found a balance between conducting her research and communicating about climate change with the big picture in mind. The impact is that she been able to use data and information to dispel myths circulating with the public about changes in the climate. She’s been covered in the New York times, she’s met with Barack Obama and Leonardo Dicaprio on the white house south lawn, and she’s got one heck of an online presence. And all of these efforts are raising the profile of climate science – for the better.

The best part is… anyone can do what Susann and Katherine are doing. This is the future of scientific communication.

The democratization of media has enabled us to communicate to wide audiences on narrow topics, but in too many cases it’s enabling harmful untruths to be perceived as facts.Today there are more voices and communication channels than ever before, and as we saw with amber necklaces, many of them are really good at distorting the truth for their own benefit. It is the responsibility of academia today to seriously consider the opportunities associated with a 2-way flow of information with the public and use proven communication techniques to get the public to believe in real-science. Cynical peddlers of pseudoscience have effectively packaged their messages in neat, believable, bite-sized formats that the public is hungry for.

If real-science is to prevail, we must adapt.