Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do Scientists Need Better Manners?

Thanks to biochem belle for pointing out an article in The Scientist called "Mind Your Manners" by Steven Wiley. My previous post basically made a similar point regarding how disrespectful behavior on the part of some scientists (in public debates, on blogs, etc.) ultimately colors the perception of the public's view of us.  It's one thing to be passionate about your ideas and opinions and quite another to express that passion in a negative diatribe against someone else with a different opinion.

I find it quite interesting that others are becoming concerned about exchanges among scientists that are increasingly disrespectful.  My post "Rude Scientists" was basically about science communication and the public's perception of scientists, but it occurred to me while preparing it that how we treat each other could influence how we are perceived as a group by the public.  I had not seen the article by Wiley in The Scientist, but we make similar points, albeit in different ways.

If you read the responses to Wiley's essay, you will see that quite a few respondents don't "get it".  A few agree and express similar concern.  One respondent to Wiley's article lays the blame on blogs.  There may be something to that, although I wonder if it's more related to the anonymous nature of blogging that brings out the lack of manners?  Perhaps this behavior is like road rage.  People who are totally polite and mild-mannered in person turn into The Hulk on the highway.  I've always believed that road rage was partly due to the (somewhat) anonymity of the driver, partly to the stress involved in driving, and partly the lack of face-to-face interaction that holds most people in check.

Wiley also makes an important point about maintaining your composure when attacked.  If you remain calm and respectful toward your attacker, you will almost always win the respect of the audience--as well as the argument. I described some clear guidelines for dealing with verbal attacks in previous posts: "Sticks and Stones...", "Verbal Self-Defense", and "How to Counter a Verbal Attack".  I agree with Wiley that going over the line (e.g., into an irrational screaming match) only shows you to be immature and out-of-control.

So I don't think blogs are to blame for the rude behavior that seems to be emerging in science exchanges on blogs and elsewhere.  Blogs have just given those with little self-control a ready outlet for their frustrations.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rude Scientists

This series is about science communication.  We now have so many wonderful outlets to share our excitement and fascination with science: websites, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc.  How do we come across to the general public in these venues? Serious or Fun-loving? Boring or Interesting? Lackadaisical or Enthusiastic?  Respectful or Rude?  We each must develop a "voice", which is not necessarily the same for all scientists.  I don't think we should all be deadly serious and focused entirely on facts and figures.  There is room for many different styles that are informative, yet entertaining. 

Blogs are great for giving others a glimpse into how scientists think and the idea that we are not all total nerds.  Blogs are also helpful to aspiring scientists by providing some insight into the highs and lows that are encountered in our profession (reality check) as well as to provide some helpful guidance here and there (mentoring).  Blogs can convey guidance and information that is not taught in school or can be found easily in books.

However, I’ve noticed in the blogosphere that some science bloggers gain notoriety by engaging in negative rants, heavily laden with cursing and rude attacks on anyone with a different opinion. You probably know which blogs I’m talking about. Some have huge followings, probably because readers mistakenly think that an angry voice is bound to be a truthful one. Instead of expending effort to develop an intelligent, interesting, or useful voice, these angry bloggers use their vitriol as an easy way to attract attention. Take a close look at some of these blogs, and you will see that very little real information or useful insight is conveyed.

I sometimes wonder if these negative bloggers behave equally rudely in real life among colleagues. I also wonder if their followers in the blogosphere would put up with them in person.  I think not, because most rude and obnoxious people are ostracized or at least avoided by co-workers and acquaintances.  

I’m not advocating that bloggers should (figuratively) sit around the campfire holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but to take the time to develop a positive voice.  One can point out problems and have disagreements without all the acrimony and sarcasm.  This is important, because how science bloggers behave can influence how scientists are perceived by the public.  Most people have never met a scientist and never will.  Their only insight into what a scientist might be like is through media interviews, film, and now blogs.  The public's perception of scientists has been generally good in the past, but mainly because we were believed to be honest, dedicated, unbiased--all admirable traits.  However, this could easily change as more and more people become "acquainted" with scientists through blogs and other venues.

I’m hoping some science blogs with respectful hosts will ultimately gain similarly large and loyal followers as the ranters.

(Fortunately, I could not find a photo of scientists in a fist-fight to illustrate this post.  So I used one of rowdy politicians.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Can Scientists Be More Likeable?

We scientists live in our heads, many of us happily spending hours staring at the wall thinking about some research problem. A colleague and I sometimes speculate about how a scientist would fare in a long-term hostage situation. John McCain, for example, kept his sanity during his Vietnam interlude by constructing a house in his mind. We think that scientists would do quite well, whiling away the hours pondering various science projects and theories.

For scientists, decisions are made based on logic and rational, linear thinking. In contrast, most everyone else reacts to the world through their heart, their gut, or their gonads. Appealing to intellect is not going to work for them without something that grabs them lower down in their anatomy.

I know what you are thinking. Why should I worry about what the general public thinks? Well, in our current media environment, in which it is often hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, compelling and effective communication of science to the general public is rapidly becoming of critical concern. There is a growing backlash against science--from evolution to climate change that could ultimately threaten our quality of life (if it hasn’t already). The anti-science movement is gaining an increasingly loud and influential voice, and if we don’t counter it effectively, science and its practitioners, as well as the world at large, are going to suffer.

If we only collect the data, but fail to communicate it in a compelling way, then we’ve not succeeded fully. The author of the book I’m reading (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) goes even further. He thinks that scientists will have to be much better communicators than in the past, focusing as much on style as on substance. He teaches a video-making workshop at a major oceanographic institute to graduate students with the goal of imparting the basics of camerawork, sound recording, and editing. The hope is that some of the students will be inspired to use more creative ways to communicate their love of and enthusiasm for science.

If you think amateur video is not an effective means of communication or that people would not be interested in watching home-made movies, then you haven’t spent much time looking at YouTube. In the past, video was only available to a limited number of people with access to sophisticated equipment and with years of schooling. Now, with inexpensive digital cameras and movie-editing software packaged on most computers, this communication outlet is available to anyone.

Back to my original question: are scientists likeable? Well, some of them are, but why? In the coming posts, I’ll try to delve into how scientists can be more effective at science communication. Part of the way to be more effective (at least relative to the general public) is to be more likeable. If you are likeable, then people will be more willing to trust you and to listen to your message.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Are Scientists Likeable?

I'm reading a book about science communication, and the author makes a point about how the public views scientists, e.g., when they are interviewed or appear in film.  Most (all?) scientists think that the most important thing they must convey is accuracy.  However, they often neglect to consider the impression they make with how they speak and how they look. When asked a question, they often equivocate and say something like, "Well, it depends".  Or, they may ramble on and on spewing out a bunch of facts and figures rather than give a simple, direct answer. We scientists, hearing this are unperturbed, knowing that the speaker is simply qualifying their answers to be as accurate as possible.

The average person watching such a display reacts negatively, however---thinking that the scientist either is clueless or is untrustworthy.

I sometimes ask my students and staff to pretend that they are approached by a member of the public (e.g., a fisherman) while doing fieldwork and to explain in one or two sentences what they are doing and why it's important.  The results are often hilarious--and incomprehensible to the average person.

What many scientists don't understand is that to be an effective communicator, they must have both "substance" (what you say) and "style" (how you say it).  The style part is what baffles scientists. They think that stating their facts and logic is the way to win people over: "If I explain things accurately, then it doesn't matter how I say it or how I look.  Right?"

Wrong.  The average person watching an interview or debate will initially focus on how the person looks and behaves (is he neatly dressed? is she relaxed?) and on the message second.  If her eyebrows look like they need attention with a weed-whacker or if he's dressed like a homeless person, I guarantee you that the audience is making a judgment about that scientist's credentials based on appearance--and it's not good.

It's a lot like how people decide on which presidential candidate to vote for.  Do you think the average person pores over each candidate's stance on a multitude of issues or their qualifications for the job? Or do people decide based on whether they "like" the candidate?  I think the latter.

Consider the evolution vs. intelligent design debates.  Scientists have the facts and logic on their side, but the IDers are whooping our butts in public debates.  The ID proponents pay careful attention to both substance and style, with heavy emphasis on the latter.

Does this make sense to a literal-minded scientist?  Of course not.  But that's not the point.

This focus on style when it comes to science communication may sound ridiculous to you, but your opinion doesn't count.  If your audience decides you are a dork and not worth listening to, then it's going to be very difficult to get your message across.

Art by R. Campus

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Broken Promises--An Expert Replies

I posed the following question that a reader sent in to a grant-writing expert:

"A grant proposal names a particular individual as "consultant" and lists their credentials to perform consulting work.  The grant is awarded.  To what extent is the PI obligated to hire that individual?  Could another consultant be retained without repercussion?  Does the proposal constitute a contract between the institution and the consultant? What if the would-be consultant becomes seriously ill, or has a "falling out" with the PI before the grant work starts?"

Several readers have responded to the poll I posted (in right nav bar), and it seems that the majority so far agree with the expert:

"The award of grant funds by a funding agency to a PI is essentially a contract between the funding agency and the PI to carry out the proposed research.  Usually the answer to “change of consultant” is yes.  The funding agency approved the PI’s budget, which contained the consultancy position.  The agency does not normally approve each individual listed in the budget, other than the PI.  If the budgetary position had not been approved, the PI could not use any of those grant funds for hiring a consultant.  The PI generally has options about which personnel are to be supported on the grant, including any necessary changes to accomplish the research.

The PI did not offer the reason for the change, but it would be well to consider at least two aspects.

1) Review all correspondence and conversations between the PI and the initial consultant to determine to what extent the consultant may have been “promised” the position.  If there were obligations made or implied, to what extent would they be legally binding if brought to court?

2) Gather all pertinent material about the replacement consultant and then contact the Project Officer of the funding agency.  Cite the reasons for the change, the expertise of the new consultant, and offer to send on further documentation.  Assure the Project Officer that the research can/will be carried out under the terms of the award with the new consultant."

~ Charles F. Howard, Jr., Ph.D

You don't necessarily have to agree with this.  Please indicate your preference in the poll or tell us about any experience you've had with a similar situation.

If you are interested in learning more about grant writing, Dr. Howard is hosting an audioconference on January 26, 2010 at 1:00pm EST: Writing Successful Grant Proposals

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Broken Promises

The following question was posed to a grant writing expert:

"A grant proposal names a particular individual as "consultant" and lists their credentials to perform consulting work.  The grant is awarded.  To what extent is the PI obligated to hire that individual?  Could another consultant be retained without repercussion?  Does the proposal constitute a contract between the institution and the consultant? What if the would-be consultant becomes seriously ill, or has a "falling out" with the PI before the grant work starts?"

What do you think?  What if the individual in question was an associate PI (among several PIs), but did not make a significant contribution to the proposal preparation?

Give your opinion in the poll to the right.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fictional Female Scientist: Clues

Here are the answers to the clues I gave in the Dec. 30 post to identify the final four fictional female scientists (see list at bottom of main page).  The photos are identified clockwise starting with upper left corner:

#4. Botany Bay, Ghengis Khan, Genesis--Star Trek--The Wrath of Khan (Dr. Carol Marcus)

#6. James Cameron (director), swimming rat, USS Montana (the sunken ship), undersea exploration--The Abyss (Dr. Lindsey Brigman)

#8. Amazon, ethnobotany, "medicine", the constellation "Cancer"--Medicine Man (Dr. Rae Crane)

#12. Pandora's box, flying, St. Augustine Florida--Avatar (Dr. Grace Augustine)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Evasive Action

I recently attended a required course taught by the U.S. Dept. of State for government employees who are to be posted overseas.  I had to take this course because I'll be conducting research in another country for several months, and one of the hurdles was taking two courses: one taught online and the other a two-day course held in Arlington, VA.  I had hopes that the course would teach something useful and exciting like evasive car driving or dismantling bombs.  But no such luck.

There were about a hundred people attending this particular session.  Quite a few were being posted to Kabul and other treacherous places.  I felt they needed all the information they could get in order to survive and return home.  I, on the other hand, am going to a location with little violence or potential for terrorism.  In fact, I tried very hard to get out of taking this course.  I've traveled extensively and know how to avoid trouble.  Again, no such luck.  I was told in no uncertain terms that there were NO EXCEPTIONS to this rule.  Since my travel is approved by the Dept. of State, I had to comply if I wanted to go.

So I made the best of it and tried to glean something that might be useful in the future.  The course consisted of a series of lectures by working and retired employees of the Dept. of State, many of whom had spent years in scary places.   We heard about how to avoid being ambushed by assassins (e.g., vary your routine and get off the "X" as quickly as possible), to block attempts at espionage (this is really important for protecting wetland ecology secrets), to deal with a hostage situation (e.g., tell your relatives not to talk to the press: "Yeah, Billy-Bob is going to kick their butts; he'll escape first chance he gets". Thanks, Uncle Joe.), and what papers and records you need to either have with you or to have available to others in case of emergency (medical and financial powers of attorney--allows informed medical decisions and your bills to be paid in case of incapacity).  Some of this was fairly extreme, but information about documents, etc. was useful for anyone traveling abroad.

I came away from this course much more paranoid than before (and as a field researcher, I was already a big believer in Murphy's Law).  But I did agree with the central message of this course: the only person you can count on to avoid (or get you out of) a bad situation.... is yourself.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Article of the Future

In case you haven't seen it, Elsevier has launched a new format for research articles online that is being touted as the “Article of the Future”. These will be published in the series Cell Press journals.  The idea is “to redefine how scientific articles are presented online”.  The new approach will restructure research articles by using:

1.    An integrated, linked navigation scheme whereby the reader can move through the article at a self-determined path—as opposed to the traditional linear format.

2.    A tabbed navigation structure through the major article sections, which allows general readers to get the main message and experts to delve deeper into the details.

3.    A graphical abstract and a list of highlights is found on the landing page of each article.

4.    Text, a figure, and figure caption on the same screen.  The figures will have zooming capability for readers to see fine details.

5.    Integrated multimedia via PaperFlicks, a video tour of an article’s content (for selected articles).  You can download this video and view it later.

Here is an example of the future article format.  It should be interesting to see how this plays out.   This format makes a lot of sense—and will presumably allow authors to include important information that would otherwise be prohibited by word limits.  The downside is accessibility to such articles, which will require a subscription to the journal.  You can still get a pdf or an extended pdf with supplementary material from the author, but these will not have the navigability function.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What Do Car Crashes, Volcanoes, and Pop Stars Have in Common?

I’ve written previously about how important it is to expose young girls to science and female role models.  A group of undergraduate students at Colorado State University are doing this by going into local classrooms of 12 year old girls and leading them in science experiments.  They’ve come up with some great ideas for science experiences:

1.    Taxonomy: girls learn about the classification of animals by classifying pop stars.  They learn about the different ways that animals can be classified.

2.    Volcanoes: girls create volcanoes out of papier mache and use vinegar and baking soda to make them erupt, learning how volcanoes work and how lava moves.

3.  Momentum: girls crash cars into each other and learn how seat belts and air bags absorb energy from the collision. 

This program, called WISDOM (Women in Science Devoted to Outreach and Mendoring), was created by a senior at CSU who was concerned about the disparity between men and women in science fields.  The idea of these classes is to allow girls to experience a relaxed, hands-on approach to studying science than what is typically taught to them in co-ed classes. 

Because only girls participate, there seems to be less peer pressure for them to behave a certain way.  They also get to see young women who are majoring in science and who can act as mentors.

Read more about this program in the Coloradoan.