Persuasion 101 for Science Communicators

Look out, it’s another hot take!

Many of you probably saw the recent article from Scientific American.  It’s another in a long line of opinion pieces talking about how scientific communicators are probably doing it wrong in one way or another. We will get to my own hot take in a bit, but this article bothered me in particular because it’s thesis statement was, “…are we leading audiences to rely less on data than emotion?” I agree with the author that unscrupulous emotional appeals aren’t the best way to gain the public trust, but the Op-Ed left me with the impression that data driven argumentation is the one good way to do science communication.  That’s a premise I do not support.

I think the real problem is many folks giving advice to scientific communicators have a real misunderstanding about what persuasive communication actually is. If we are seeking to persuade audiences, and as scientific communicators our basic goal should at least be to persuade folks that our work is interesting and worthwhile, we need to understand how persuasion works from a communications perspective.

What I’m not saying in this essay is that using data to drive your scientific communication is wrong.  I think data driven communication efforts can be effective and compelling! I am saying persuasive communication is a flexible tool and we, as a scientific community, are doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t understand all the different ways we can use it.

Like in so many instances, we ignore the wisdom of the Social Sciences at our own peril.

Buckle up buttercup.  Get ready for Persuasion 101 in 500 words**.     

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Persuasive Communication 101

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User Guide for Grad Students Worried about the End of the World

Note: I originally published this article in the 4th volume of The Brickyard, the graduate student publication edited and put together by a group of folks in the UC Davis Grad Group in Ecology.  You can find a link to that publication here, and the article below is largely the same.  I’ve made a few minor changes and conjugated the title in a more pleasing way. I hope you like it!

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On the fourth day of the new presidential administration, I got an email from my funding source saying they didn’t know if the money would keep coming.  I knew the attitude toward science would shift with the change in power, but I never expected such concrete impacts to my life within the first week.  When my paycheck did come two weeks later, I knew I had to change my approach.  I wanted to feel I was working to make things better, and if I experienced a near miss, it’s almost certain someone else had taken the hit.  Like any good type A personality, I knew what I really needed was a plan.   

I read a lot of think pieces, I talked to a lot of folks I respect, and, in the end, I developed an approach that felt right for me.  I offer you my own guidelines now, not as prescription, but as an attempt to empower you to make a plan for how you will approach the coming years.  Interrogating my own motivations and priorities was emotionally taxing, time consuming, and frustrating.  Inventorying my special skills required grappling with imposter syndrome for the millionth, and I’m sure not last, time.  I still haven’t gotten over the daunting size of the issues we face, but as Cairns and Crawford once wrote, It is almost too late to start, but tomorrow is even later.”

——— Continue reading “User Guide for Grad Students Worried about the End of the World”

This Blog is about My Life (#acutallivingscientist)

Last year, maybe October, I was listening to an episode of the She Explores Podcast.  The guest spoke about the role of social media in her work in a way that really struck me.  The analogy was basically this:  social media is a window into our lives, and we control the size of that window.  People want to peek in, but if you make the window too big, you might make folks uncomfortable.  If we make the window too small, it may fail to serve our purposes.  I’ve been walking around with this tidbit in my shoe for months.  How big is my window?  Have I made it too big for online platforms I strive to keep more professional (Twitter, Tumblr, this blog)?

Then, last week, two Twitter hashtags caught on pretty much simultaneously.  #DressLikeAWoman was born in response to an anonymous leak claiming Donald Trump likes female staff “to dress like women.”  (Whatever that even means.)  #ActualLivingScientist was started by Dr. David Steen, reportedly in response to a 2011 survey reporting 66% of Americans can’t name a single living scientist.  Obviously, I adore both these things.  First, I love it when the ladies of Twitter clap back, but when lady scientists join the fray, I get extra pumped.  Second, I love how folks in the #ActualLivingScientist feed distilled their work down to a single tweet.  It’s good practice for learning how to communicate our ideas outside of our own community.

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Yesterday, it clicked.  The coupling of these ideas represent why this blog is so important to me.  If I ever made my window too big, or the only reason I even made a window, was so folks would know what it was like to be a scientist.  But more than that, Meridith and I wanted people to see what it was like to be young, to be in graduate school, to be a woman, to be from the south, to be frustrated, to be uncertain, to succeed.  I’ve always said that Sweet Tea, Science was a science lifestyle blog.  I stand by that now more than ever.  We are actual living scientists, and these are our lives.

Continue reading “This Blog is about My Life (#acutallivingscientist)”