Posts tagged “communication”

Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

When actor, scholar, and activist Alan Alda was eleven, he asked a teacher a question that had been plaguing him. “What’s a flame? What’s going on in there?”

The teacher paused, as Alda recollects, and replaced one unknown with another, commenting, “It’s oxidation.” Alda notes that as an encounter with the failure of scientific communication.

Unbeknownst to me, Alda has pursued science communication pretty actively over the last few years, between interviews on Scientific American Frontiers and work at SUNY Stony Brook. He wrote recently,

I began to think that clarity in communicating science is at the very heart of science itself. And I wondered if written and oral communication skills could be taught systematically throughout the entire length of a student’s science education. The State University of New York at Stony Brook picked up on this idea, founding the Center for Communicating Science. I became part of the teaching faculty, and we began experimenting. We are now teaching communication courses for credit to graduate students in the sciences. Students learn to distill their message and write without jargon. They also experience an innovative course in improvisation, which teaches them to communicate with a live audience with the ease and familiarity of an animated conversation. The intention, of course, is not to turn scientists into actors but to allow them to be more authentically themselves in public inter- actions. Most of all, we discourage any form of “dumbing down” the science. The goal is to achieve clarity and vividness.

He also returned to that original question about flames and opened a competition. The winner is embedded below — pretty outstanding little video created by Ben Ames, an American PhD student studying quantum optics.

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