Scicomm how to succeed in science communication Doctor Anna's Imaginarium

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Scicomm is science communication

Before Facebook, I thought scicomm was about giving people facts. Facts that they would gratefully receive and that would improve their knowledge of the world. I was convinced that scicomm is easy since people are reasonable and thirsty for peer-reviewed knowledge.

I was an ignorant, biased fool.

I had studied for more than a decade, spent thousands of hours plowing through books on biochemistry, cell biology, evolution… you name it. I had been awarded five university degrees, including a Ph.D., and felt that I had reached the biologist’s equivalent of the master in Karate Kid.

I was here to tell people how the world ticks. Scicomm, here I come!
Do I need to tell you how flat on my face I fell?

I was an ignorant, biased fool.

Scicomm and the art of science communication | Doctor Anna's Imaginarium

Scicomm – a lot of “wax on, wax off”…

Nothing, I repeat nothing, had prepared me for “real-world” science communication.
The biggest problem for me was that I had no idea for whom I was writing and to whom I was speaking, but I thought I knew.

Maybe, I was a master of my field, but when it came to communication, I had many hours of “waxing on and off” before I had learned even the most basic skills.
During my 12 years at university, the skill of emotional and gripping storytelling had forcefully been extracted from my communication toolkit to give space for effective and dry scientific writing.

Don’t get me wrong, scientific writing skills are vital for the success of a scientist, but this is not the kind of writing needed when trying to explain to the general public why it might be a good thing if they try to avoid contracting polio, preferably by means of vaccinations.

Scicomm and the art of science communication | Doctor Anna's Imaginarium

Scicomm and my echo chamber

During my studies, I too had lived in a tightly closed echo chamber; my friends confirmed to me what I already thought and social media fed me the news that I agreed with. I was emotionally (not intellectually) convinced that at least 60 % of the world’s population had Ph.D:s in science.

The disagreements I was exposed to were around mundane things like the best flavor of ice cream and how one should fill a pipette box in the lab.

Scicomm the art of science communication | Doctor Anna's Imaginarium
This man has 12 million followers. He is a sly business strategist and successfully sells longevity drops on his site. I agree the value is *insane*.

I was gobsmacked when I suddenly realized that there are groups out there with hundreds-of-thousands of followers who believe that the world is flat or that vaccines are a conspiracy of lizard people for population control. That David Avocado Wolfe wasn’t a satire site and that his 12 million followers actually believe the things he posts.

My first reaction was to correct these led-astray individuals. I would simply give them the right information and they would come around.

Again, as I have already told you: I was an arrogant idiot.

How I started to crack the scicomm code

What I have learned most by, has been to observe people interacting on different types of social media groups and pages. I could in real time observe how we reinforce each other’s beliefs.
When people from outside the echo chamber come visiting, the whole thing often disintegrates into a pretty pointless red-and-white-rose war with random postings of links to peer-reviewed articles, memes, and video clips that no one really reads or looks at.

It was apparent that just stating facts wasn’t going to cut it.

Scicomm the art of science communication Doctor Anna's Imaginarium

So what to do?

I wished I had an easy (and $ellable) answer to that million-dollar question. I don’t.
This issue is extremely complex, and we need to have many different strategies up our sleeve to un-polarize our society and to effectively communicate science.

It was apparent that just stating facts wasn’t going to cut it.

What not to do?

Don’t be an arrogant idiot like I have been.

Open your eyes and observe people. Take a few days as fieldwork and walk the dark lands of social media for a while. You will learn a lot. Don’t interact, unless you are asking questions. Observe what happens when you post evidence that contradicts their beliefs (I bet that you’ll get banned within 30 s).

This is what you are up against. This is real-life scicomm. It is tough as hell but extremely rewarding when you finally reach people or when you have a discussion and suddenly realize that you are the student. I sometimes hear gripping stories and saddening life events, and I learn new and wonderful things every day.

Scicomm – forget my previous advice

Sometimes, “just” stating facts is the right way to go, if the audience is open to it. In those cases, it’s an extremely effective way of getting your point across. I would do this when speaking to eager students or science enthusiasts.

However, if people are emotional and they feel a strong belonging and loyalty to a group that has given their life meaning, well, then maybe arrogantly blasting them with facts about some complex biological system may not be the best idea unless you’d like to be called something along the lines of “Go die, you stupid whore!”. Whatever you do, don’t take it personally.
I speak from experience.

Scicomm and the art of science communication | Doctor Anna's Imaginarium
This is what you are up against. Make vaccines and genetics sexier than this image and you’ve won.

Other times, these “pointless wars” can be avoided if the tone is set right and if there are no blatant hardliners involved. If the fun is on your own page, ensure to ban trolls immediately so that a civil tone is kept. Otherwise, you will lose the fence-sitters immediately. You must ensure that yours is a nice and friendly “side” to be on or they’ll leave.

Just try to be likable.

Pro tip: Don’t say “Go die, you stupid whore” and don’t threaten people’s kids.
Again, I speak from having been on the receiving end of that. It’s not great.

Online scicomm that isn’t social media

We also need to get much better at Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to rank higher on Google than sites spreading scientific misinformation for profit. This way, we can reach people in the exact moment when they are open for new information that they are actively searching for. We reach people before they get logged into hardliner-closed groups with their unsavory tactics and attitudes, but I will write a separate article on that topic.

Pro tip: Don’t say “Go die, you stupid whore” and don’t threaten people’S kids.

Well, good luck and see you in the trenches.

Sci Hard!
Doctor Anna

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I started to support Dr Anna Imaginarium after looking at various other excellent scicomm sites. It was a difficult decision to pick one, but I felt you had a lot of very positive traits. I like your page name “Dr Annas Imaginarium”. It brings up thoughts of really cool stuff. Your demeanor and delivery in your videos is very good, love it. Lots of good facts with bits of humor mixed in. The brand you have created just needs more exposure. I appreciate you opening yourself publicly to harsh words and insults. This cannot be easy.

    We all live in our own echo chambers to some extent. The learning process to learn to influence and persuade people that have gone astray is difficult. There is very little hard science to help us out. I just got through posting in your group trying to persuade Dave and David to work together and leverage each others’ strengths. I do not think it went very well.

    The insights you share in this post are excellent. I have read it a couple of times to see if I have anything to add. I believe that we will find effective strategies to fight this “war on science” because we have no other choice. People are dying. I will continue to post any ideas I have. Please do not be afraid to hurt my feelings if they are not good. I do not have an ego.
    Well that’s the end of my rambling and review.
    Sci-hard
    Ruben Garza

    • Hi Ruben,

      Thank you for your thoughts and feedback! I’m always open for suggestions and new ideas when it comes to how to effectively communicate science. The issue is so complex and there simply isn’t one-fits-all answer, so I’m constantly searching for more info, studies, and inputs from people of different backgrounds. Sent it all my way!!! 🙂
      We have a long way ahead of us, but I believe that we can achieve a much weaker polarization of our society if we simply communicate in a bit more thought-through manner.
      Sci Hard!

  2. Find something that will excite the kids. Now you may have it with the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket. I posted a link to the BBC report on this. Mori910.

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