Scientists’ Understanding of the Public Is Just as Important as Public Understanding of Science

When I hear people discuss topics like climate change or vaccines, it often is accompanied by some inherent assumptions about the people who harbor beliefs that are not supported by science. Once I entered the field of science communication and started reading up on it, I realized that the literature does not support many of these assumptions. I summarized my findings in my first post for American Scientist‘s new blog Macroscope. (This is one of several new blog channels, a launch I’m excited to be a part of. Check them out here.)

Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at University of Michigan, gave a great talk last year about why scientists can’t simply use intuition to decide how to communicate. Lupia says they must learn about their audience to meet them where they are. Watch his talk here:


Favorite Quotes from Science Communications in 2014

There was so much good science writing in 2014. I can’t say I’ve read it all, and my reading is always a conglomeration of journal articles, science writing, short reports, long reads, and books. Here is a hodgepodge of quotes from science writers, interviews with scientists or journalists, and scientific journal articles that caught my eye this year.

“The idea that emotion impedes logic is pervasive and wrong.” – Virginia Hughes, “Emotion Is Not the Enemy of Reason,” Only Human

“If not for a virus, none of us would have been born.” – Carl Zimmer, “Mammals Made By Viruses,”  The Loom

“Planet formation is sloppy and creative and wildly varied.” – Corey S. Powell, “When the Earth Had Two Moons,” Nautilus

“The governor had seen the media coverage [about the climate change tipping point] and had questions about the science but was particularly interested in the level of agreement within the scientific community. [Anthony] Barnosky says that the gist of the conversation [with Governor Brown] came down to one question: ‘Why aren’t you guys shouting this from the rooftops?’

“’We thought we were,’ recalls [Elizabeth] Hadly.” – Virginia Gewin, “Science and Politics: Hello Governor,” Nature News

“No biology student should get a diploma without a single course in identifying organisms.” - Nature summary of J. J. Tewksbury’s BioScience article

“I fall in love every time I look at a cheese rind.” – Rachel Dutton, in Ewen Callaway’s Nature News article “Scientists and cheesemakers gather for (microbial) culture”

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Hans Selye, in Jo Marchant’s Mosaic article “Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?”

“The truth is I didn’t really understand what science was until graduate school.” – Rob Dunn, in interview with Lea Shell, Your Wild Life

“I laugh when people say print is dead. Name one industry that gives as many births on its dying bed.” – Samir Husni, in interview with Susan Currie Sivek

“I had this interesting personal experience of going from self-identifying as a physicist or mathematician to self-identifying as a sociologist. What I noticed over the course of that transition was that people started reacting to my work differently, and that when you expressed something as a math problem, people were somewhere between impressed and terrified, and they would say things like, ‘How can you even figure out stuff like that? That is amazing.’ But when you start to express the very same sort of questions in terms of real sociological examples, things that people actually have experience with, they would say things like, ‘Oh, that sounds like common sense!’ and ‘I could have told you that. That’s obvious.’ I would think, ‘Is it really that obvious? Because I just spent three years trying to figure that out, and I am pretty sure it is not obvious. But thank you for your feedback.’” – Duncan Watts, in an interview with Edd Dumbill 

“If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them, Langer says, they would fulfill their potential and improve their health. Langer’s technique of achieving a state of mindfulness is different from the one often utilized in Eastern ‘mindfulness meditation’ — nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through your mind — that is everywhere today. Her emphasis is on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are “actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual” categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve. Indeed, ‘well-being and enhanced performance’ were Langer’s goals from the beginning of her career.” – Bruce Grierson, “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?”, The New York Times

“Oh sure, there are benefits to having an intimate knowledge about the world around you. There is the thrill of discovery, the deep intellectual satisfaction that comes with knowing and the ever expanding appreciation and reverence for the complexities of the universe. There’s all that good stuff, and then there is the comments section of the Internet. Spend a few minutes browsing that treasure trove of humanity’s best and brightest and your intellectual satisfaction will degrade into rage faster than the decay of element 117. There are only so many times you can say things like, ‘Science doesn’t work that way,’ ‘Yes, microwaves use radiation but not THAT kind of radiation,’ or ‘Fool! You’ll kill us all!’ before all those mad scientists from the movies start looking pretty relatable. None of them started off pointing a death-ray at the moon. They were probably just marine biologists who had to explain one too many times that whales aren’t fish.” – Craig Fay, “The Frustrations of Being Scientifically Literate,” Scientific American Guest Blog

“It’s actually a very unpleasant experience to read a Nature paper, or to read a Science paper.” – Randy Schekman, in an interview with Métode

“40 percent of press releases contained explicit advice not indicated in the journal article. Another 33 percent of claims in press releases used stronger language than in the journal article. Finally, 36 percent of press releases inferred that a finding was related to human health when the study was not actually performed in humans.” – Bethany Brookshire, “This Study of Hype in Press Releases Will Change Journalism,” SciCurious

“We are more closely related to Dimetrodon than Dimetrodon was to T-Rex.” – Emily Graslie, video “Dimetrodon Is Not a Dinosaur,” The Brain Scoop

“The numbers are where the scientific discussion should start, not end.” – Steven Goodman, in Regina Nuzzo’s Nature News feature “Scientific Method: Statistical Errors”



People Can and Are Living Alongside Large Carnivores

 Juan José González Vega/ Wikimedia Commons

Juan José González Vega/ Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, a study was published in Science that showed that populations of large carnivores are flourishing in Europe, even in areas inhabited by people. This study wasn’t news to me, because there is already quite a bit of literature showing that large carnivore populations are growing in Europe, discussing how to regulate them and how to predict population growth and habitat use. But what was novel to me: It was the first media message that I have seen in the U.S. that told a different story than the conflict between people and large carnivores.

Even stories covering the carnivore situation in Europe previously presented it as a conflict, ignoring the fact that Europe and many countries therein have been proactive in preventing such inflammatory interactions. As the Science paper notes, livestock owners are compensated if any animals are killed by a carnivore, and government incentives for establishing preventive measures to protect livestock, such as trained guardian dogs and fencing, are in place. Wolves in Europe are taking up residence in habitats as varied as garbage dumps and remote woodlands, adapting to the circumstances at hand. As Michelle Nijhuis said in her report iThe New Yorker, the U.S. could learn something from Europe, which has more than double the number of wolves and is more than twice as densely populated (according to the new Science study).

What’s amazing is that humans and carnivores are living alongside one another quite successfully–so much so that people often don’t realize the predators are around. In the US, urban coyotes are residents in quite populated areas. In Durham, where I live, the coyote population is established and growing, but seeing or even hearing one is pretty rare. I’ve set out to do so, though: I have enrolled in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’s eMammal project to camera trap wildlife in my neighborhood and its parks.


New Amphibian Diseases Threaten to Exacerbate Worldwide Decline

Red-spotted newts are one of the North American salamanders susceptible to the new chytrid disease. (Wikimedia Commons)

Red-spotted newts are  susceptible to the new chytrid disease. (Wikimedia Commons)

The decline of the world’s amphibians, in part due to disease caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), has caused alarm among conservationists, wildlife managers, and herpetologists. Just as treatments for the disease were showing some successes, including boosting immunity through exposure to dead or live pathogens and skin probiotics, two new diseases have been announced in the last year: a new species of chytrid fungus and two new ranaviruses, both discovered in Europe. The chytrid fungus (B. salamandrivorans) was discovered in Bunderbos, The Netherlands in 2013 after a 96% decline in fire salamander populations was observed there. The new ranavirus was found in northern Spain, and caused population crashes for the common midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans), the alpine newt (Mesotriton alpestris), and the common toad (Bufo bufo).

A paper just published in Science showed that the new chytrid fungus is from Asia and identified dozens of susceptible salamander species from Europe and the Americas, as well as three optimal reservoir species that can clear the disease after harboring it–and potentially transmitting it–for months. The researchers found that newts are especially likely to be infected by this disease, and the trade of Asian newts for pets is the most likely way that the disease was introduced to The Netherlands.   

Conservationists are calling for testing and quarantines of potential reservoir species in the pet trade. In the US, which harbors the greatest salamander diversity in the world in the Appalachian Mountains, monitoring is only required for animals crossing borders if they could harbor diseases that pose direct threats to humans and livestock, according to a press release from University of Maryland. Karen Lips of University of Maryland, one of the coauthors on the Science paper, has been working on bringing this issue to policymakers. She wrote a post on the Leopold Leadership 3.0 blog about learning to bring her science to inform policy. Much of her advice resonated with the outcomes of the panel discussion I organized at ESA, especially her point about the time investment necessary to develop trusting relationships between policymakers and scientists. In light of the results from this recent paper, inaction will spell impending declines in salamander populations of the Americas. More scientific and policy developments are likely to emerge in the coming months and years. Stay tuned.

Beetle Battle Specialization


From Wikimedia

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed Erin McCullough of University of Montana about her research on the evolution of rhinoceros beetle horns; she published that work in July in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

I was excited to see that a few months later in August, she published another related paper in PNAS. In this paper, she explores how the form and function of animal weapons is related to diversification of beetle horns. In the beetles she studies, males fight other males using their horns, in order to secure a mate. She found that male beetle’s horn structure is adapted to  the typical fighting tactics used by his species.