About CommForge2

CommForge2 is the course website for LAIS423/523, Advanced Science Communication, at the Colorado School of Mines. From here, you can link to student sci-tech blogs, read about the course, and comment on current events and stories. Welcome!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Video Post

We've just wrapped up Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist, and before we turn our attention to crafting formal, creative presentations, we're going to take a brief interlude for some video production.

Some of you might know that I teach a course called Film Studies for LAIS.  I've taught the course (or some version of it) for almost ten years, and video production is a big part of the class--in addition to studying film history, film art, and film language, students in that course also spend the bulk of the semester making videos.

Here's a few links to a couple of my favorite film projects from that class, over the years:

Abandonment (Pt. 1)

Abandonment (Pt. 2)

Last Call

Unfortunately, in Advanced Science Communication, we don't have the entire semester to devote to making videos.  And we most likely won't be making fiction films anyway.  But there are some basics of videomaking and visual storytelling that we might be able to master (or at least begin to master) in a fairly short period of time, and which can enhance the kinds of storytelling you're able to do on your blog.

Hence, this assignment.

Each blog in the class is required to post a video on the blog by Thursday, October 11, at the beginning of class.  So here's how this is going to go down:

Today in class (September 27th):  Group work to map out the concept, make arrangements for equipment and editing, setting up shoot times, and sketching storyboards for the video.

For next Thursday, October 4:  Screening of rough drafts of videos (ranging from raw footage to "rough cuts") in class.  Group feedback session.  Will continue on Tuesday, October 9, if necessary.

Thursday, October 11:  Final videos should be posted on the blogs.

Minimum expectations:

  • Videos can range from 1-5 minutes in length.  What matters most is not the length but the content, inventiveness, and storytelling ability of the video.
  • The video should be related in some way to the topic of your blog.
  • The video should not be 1-5 minutes of someone talking at the camera with no editing or other visual interest.
  • The video should incorporate some of the main ideas from Olson's book.
  • The video should incorporate the basic videomaking skills described in Schroeppel's book.  Everyone should have read this book before they begin filming.
  • You are required to procure your own camera and editing equipment and software.  The quality of the equipment is much less important than what you do with it.
  • The final product should demonstrate that you have incorporated class feedback from the rough session.
  • The final post should introduce the video in some way:  you can talk about the making of the video, the content of the video, or anything else you like, but you must provide your reader with some context.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Journal Article Translation (JAT)

One assignment we're working on class is taking a research article (not a commentary or news piece) from either the journal Nature or Science Magazine and turning the article into a relevant and interesting blog post.  These two publications, maybe along with PNAS, are probably the most respected science publications out there, and figuring out how to communicate what we might call "high-science" on our popular blogs is a good exercise.

At the very least, it will make you appreciate your workaday science journalists a little more.

As you're writing your blog posts, you might do some pre-writing to prepare:

  • Summarize the article in as plain a language as you can.  Then consider these questions:
  • Who are the authors?  What kind of work do they usually do?  Do they have websites that help you to put the article into context?
  • What led the authors to do the study?  You might be able to learn this from the abstract, the introduction, or their website, if they have one.  You might also see if there were press releases or news stories about the article that you could refer to for more information.  You might also consider emailing the author with some specific questions if you're feeling daring (although emails with questions like, "what is your article about?" probably won't get much of a response).
  • What are the findings?  Were the unexpected in some way?  Or confirm knowledge we already had?  Why do the findings matter to science?
  • And here's the kicker, the hard question:  why might the findings matter to the everyday reader?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Real Climate on Science Journalism

As you're no doubt beginning to see "Science Communication" can mean many different things to different people.  It can mean

  • The practice of scientists/technologists communicating with other scientists/technologists;
  • The practice of communicating science/technology to the public, or to certain segments of the public;
  • The study of how science/technology are communicated, or the practice of how they should be communicated;
  • An analysis of public understandings (or misunderstandings) of science and technology;
  • The study of controversial cases of science and technology communication or miscommunication;
  • The desire on the part of experts, organizations, or corporations to convince people to buy their products, or accept their studies, or give them "social license" to operate;
  • And probably some more that I'm not thinking of (email me if you see others, and I'll add them).
Another sub-area of science communication practice and study is science journalism, which is what today's post is about.

A few days ago, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist who writes for the climate blog Real Climate, published an interesting post about science journalism.  The post details how scientists or research groups will frequently release a version of a scientific paper to journalists a few days before the paper is published in an academic journal, on the understanding that the paper won't be publicly shared.  This makes the paper "embargoed," and essentially it allows science journalists time to figure out how to report on the story.  From Schmidt's point of view, embargoed early release is a win-win for both the scientists and journalists.

But now, it appears, some journalists are being required to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which means they can't show the embargoed article to other scientists for feedback or verification.  Schmidt sees this as bad:  it limits journalists' freedom to fully understand a story, for one thing, and it also increases the likelihood that scientists' work will be seen as resisting an "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

A couple of thoughts:  this idea of the NDA for embargoed articles seems to me to be part of the increasing corporatization of academic science:  the fierce competition between research groups for funding and attention, for example, foments this sort of treatment of intellectual property.  It also can, in cases of controversial science and technology, increase the public perception that scientists are just greedy businessmen, only interested in research for the sake of self-promotion and funding, an attack that climate scientists like Schmidt are no doubt all too aware of.

At the very worst, it could amplify the kinds of "bad science" we saw in the Pons and Fleischman Cold Fusion case, which we'll discuss more later in the semester.

It also makes the work of the busy science journalist that much harder, and let's face it, with today's round-the-clock deadlines, shrinking newsrooms, and shrinking science "newsholes" (the space for science stories among all the other stories), they have it hard enough.

It could also be that this is another problematic outcome of the split some people would like to see between PR and scientists, which we discussed last week in class.  Having scientists or engineers communicate with the public or media can be so messy, difficult, or potentially litigious, some argue, that it is better to let professional communicators (i.e., public relations professionals) do the work.  But it seems to me that when scientists leave communication efforts to PR professionals, however well-intentioned they may be, you're going to end up with communication that looks more like a business and less like Schmidt's "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blog Fodder

I taught college composition classes for many years before joining the tenure-track at the Colorado School of Mines.  For a long time, I was pretty unhappy with most of the composition texts out there...most were either grammar manuals or readers that were too general to be interesting.

But there was one exception:  Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's They Say, I say:  The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  I liked this book a lot because it talks in very frank terms about the conventions of academic writing--in other words, the kinds of implicit rules American academics use when they are writing arguments.

There are lots of subtleties in this little book that I won't go into in this post, but I think its most important message is that the key to understanding academic writing is knowing that when you are writing about a subject, you are entering into a dialogue that is already going on.  Most likely, a whole bunch of people before you have thought quite a bit about your topic and have written down those thoughts.  Writing your own paper as if that dialogue didn't exist is sort of like walking up to a group of people at a party--people who are animatedly discussing the Presidential election, say--and just interrupting with a diatribe of your own about politics without pausing to listen to what they have been talking about.  You come across as a party pooper at best and an ignorant boob at worst, but also you've done little to further the line of argumentation that was already in place.

In other words, refusing to acknowledge and understand the ongoing dialogue around you is something akin to a big, giant party foul.

Shamelessly borrowed from this blog.

For the blog project, this leads to the question, what kinds of dialogues are already happening about your subject?  Who is talking about, publishing on, blogging about nuclear power, or fraccing, or space exploration?  What are people saying about the politics of geophysics, or the perils of the robotic work force?  Until you know what the conversation is about, you won't be very effective at entering it.

In other words, your blog needs fodder.  Something to feed on.   Something to build on.  A dialogue to engage in.

I've asked students to sign up for various types of blog fodder, and then to send that list to me.  Here's what it looks like so far (I'll be adding as students send me their fodder):

These are good sources; I hope students will also subscribe to other blogs (preferably reputable or professional ones) so that they are reporting not just on the news but also engaging others in terms of arguments and ideas.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Bit More on Fracking/Fracing/Fraccing and the Deficit Model

In class today, we spent some time looking over one another's blogs and providing feedback on blog design, the content of our posts, and just general stuff about how to set things up.  Since most of us are new bloggers, we'll all be making some mistakes and hopefully taking some risks.

Toward the end of class, we began discussing Fraccing with Two C's, a student blog dealing with hydrofracturing.  We talked about the title--not only what it means, but what meanings it might connote--and also about the tone of the initial posts.  When the team labeled their blog "Fraccing" they did so in order to note that this is the correct spelling of the abbreviated form for hydrofracturing (I've also seen a lot of industry folks spell it fracing).  The media and anti-hydrofracturing activists, on the other hand, tend to use the spelling "fracking," both because it's more phonetically familiar and because it looks like a swear word, with that emphasis on that hard "k" sound at the end (google the term "What the Frack?" to see what I mean).

From TAG

After class, this very interesting article by my colleague Adam Briggle (he's at the University of North Texas" popped into my inbox.  The article is called "The Religiosity of the Fracking Debate," and in it Briggle argues that although the debate over fracking is a scientific one, those involved in the debate make their argument about the "facts" with a fervor bordering on the religious:

"It is reminiscent of a time when religious factions tore through Europe, each certain that it knew the will of God and the proper order of things. What was truth for one faction was heresy for another."
Doesn't that sound like fights over fraccing, or abortion, or stem cell research?  Controversial science debates start to look a lot like religious debates, sometimes.

Briggle goes on to argue that, really, there is a whole lot of uncertainty in the science about the effects of fracing, at all its various stages, than either side wants to acknowledge.  Supporters of fracking argue that it is 100% safe and risk-free, while opponents paint fracing as typical oil-and-gas exploitation of health and environmental loopholes.  Briggle argues that instead of polarizing in this way, we would all do well to acknowledge where uncertainty exists as we move forward with our policy decisions.

This isn't easy to do, as we discussed in class today.

So, our Fraccing with Two C's group has a choice to make:  1)  Decide that theirs is decidedly a pro-fraccing blog, and that their mission is to defend fracking as best they can against the misunderstandings of the ignorant public and "fracktivists."  This will simplify their mission tremendously, give their blog focus, and probably key them into a ready, if small, audience of people who are also interested in defending fraccing.

OR, they can 2) decide to adopt a less "religious" stance as Briggle suggests, and instead try to understand the uncertainties around fracking as best they can, interpret those uncertainties using their training and knowledge, and invite a much larger audience into dialogue with them.  This option is much riskier, they might make mistakes, and they might have to get out of their comfort zone a bit.  But the payoffs, in terms of audience and personal growth, might be bigger.

In case it's not clear: I don't think you can do both.  I don't think you can strongly advocate for one position in a controversial science debate and be seen as a trusted, impartial expert, interested in "educating" the public about the issue in general terms.

But I'm always ready to be proven wrong.

I'll be writing about other blogs over the course of the semester as important issues arise.  I'm grateful to our Fraccing group for their brave posts and their willingness to accept feedback in class today.  Nice work!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sexy Snails

Today in class we listened to this NPR story from veteran science reporter Joe Palca.  The story translates the findings of this study (no subcription required), which shows that a certain species of male snail is the epitome of the superdad.   In fact, they are such good dads that they carry around the eggs of offspring, who are not their own, on their very own backs.  And they don't even ask for child support.

Snail Daddies.  Courtesy NPR.

The reason we looked at the story in class is not because we are so interested in snails, but because this news story offers a great example of science communication--the story begins with a Monty Python clip (an effort to "arouse" the audience, if you believe Randy Olson, whose book Don't Be Such a Scientist we're reading in class).  It then mentions "sex" a few times (in this case, referring to snail reproduction), interweaves scientific information with a few more jokes and some soundbytes from science, and above all tells us why the findings of the study are important.

Which is pretty much the opposite of hitting us over the head with a bunch of science facts.  NPR may not be perfect, and my guess is that the scientists featured in this story would have preferred more detail in the story and less Monty Python.  But this counts as an example of good public science communication--at least as far as mass media goes--in my book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Oredigger on Communication

There's an interesting, brief article in The Oredigger about the importance of communicating for engineers.  Though this isn't a technical writing class, we are learning how to do different types of writing and communication for different audiences.  This excerpt from the piece was particularly pertinent, I thought:

"Our final product is typically a written report," adds Lauren Evans '82, president of a Lakewood-based consulting firm called Pinyon Environmental Engineering Resources. "A lot of times the work is for a client who's not a technical person, such as a banker or a real estate developer, so we have to be able to communicate our findings and recommendations to them in a way they can understand." Moreover, she says, the report has to be persuasive. It's not enough simply to present data clearly; that data must also be placed into context and shaped into an argument. In other words, rhetorical skills are important for the engineer.