ScienceOnline made my head explode!

People who know me know how excited I get by ideas. The pace and pitch of my voice increases and my hands move wildly like the lovechild of Peter Garrett and Kermit the Frog. My mind leaps from one thing to another as I furiously try to fit all of these new pieces into an enormous jigsaw puzzle, connecting little islands of thought into scenes of clarity.

In this state, it is incredibly difficult to compose a crisp piece of writing. I’m feeling anything but ‘flow’ at the moment. It’s more like a car wash, coming from all directions. But I wanted to share some of the things that have resonated with me since attending the ScienceOnline Watch Party on the weekend.

ScienceOnline is a conference that happened in the USA last week. The theme is “Conversations, community and connections at the intersection of science and the web”. Before the event, Sarah Keenihan, Kristin Alford and I chose four sessions from the ScienceOnline ‘menu’, grouped losely into two themes: Our audience – Why won’t the deficit model die? and Persuading the unpersuadable – communicating science to deniers, cynics and trolls; and self awareness – We are who we are? Who are we? Issues of identity and the internet, and Life in the vennWhat happens when you’re forced to wear many hats? There have been many blogs and Storify collations of ScienceOnline, too many to link to right now. I might come back and do it, but I suggest you just google them (or just look at Bridge8’s list here.)

All of the sessions were great and stimulated lost of thinking and conversation. Sarah has already written about juggling roles and identity as a response to those sessions, and both she and Kristin have written responses to the session on ‘persuading the unpersuadable’ (Sarah’s here, Kristin’s here). Which is convenient really, because the one that has been going through my head the most is the one on the deficit model.

But why that one? Well, I’m a nerd really (and identify with nerds culturally – reference session on identity) and my Discipline is Science Communication. The theory of science communication lights me up, because it helps me understand what I do and helps me do what I do better. I have worn, and still wear, many hats as I move(d) from scientist to science communicator to researcher (reference session on hats) and the theory is what helps bring all of those things together. I can combine all of those hats into one when I think of my core interest: How people relate to science and technology in food production. Also, I have been reading about the deficit model for a couple of things for work at the moment, so it’s been churning around in my mind. My third reason for focusing on that here follows on from our #onsci twitter chat last night where we discussed the deficit model more broadly and I’m taking the opportunity to explain it and my thinking in more that 140 characters.

Science communication is still a relatively new discipline, and I’m beginning to think it has the wrong name but haven’t come up with a better one. Basically we are a bunch of people who work at the intersection of science and society. Some people are scientists who do outreach, talking to schools, community groups, the media. Some people are science journalists or writers, writing for the masses. Some people have a qualification in science communication and may be working for research organisations, developing and delivering programs to inform and engage people. Some may be educators, working in the non-formal/informal space. Some may be researchers, coming from a history and philosophy of science perspective, trying to uncover how we as a society engage with scientific ideas. There are probably others that I’ve missed. I have been (and arguably still am) most of the roles on this list, but it is the last role that, at the moment, excites me the most.

For most of my career, I have worked within a deficit model of science communication. I have paraphrased this as “If you knew what I knew, you’d like it too” (although I better a better paraphrase is “I believe there’s a space in your head. I’m going to fill it with information and then you will act differently”). By this I mean that this was the underlying philosophy/strategy of the program I worked on. Even my title, Education Officer, made this quite clear. I was there to educate you, because there was stuff you didn’t know, and you needed to know it so that you could make informed (better) decisions. I talked to a lot of people that were cynical (reference session on persuading the unpersuadable). I knew we needed to change, but my scientific training didn’t equip me with the skills I needed to address it as a research question. So I went back to Uni to learn how people do research into how people learn and I learned about constructivism.This theory of learning suggests that people have unique sets of experiences and these will influence their learning. New information becomes integrated, filtered and constructed in light of these experiences. I also learned about research in the social sciences; how and why to do it. Now I’m focusing on understanding what people think about science in food and why. In particular, I’m interested in how ideas about science in food have been constructed socially and culturally.

I believe the deficit model needs to die, and die soon, but I sense an anxiousness about this among others in science communication, particularly those who are coming from a more sciencey perspective. “But people NEED information” I hear. Throwing out the deficit model does not mean we can’t give people information. It does not mean that scientists can’t talk about their work, or that they should start to feel anxious about what model of science communication they are using. I think the key message for scientists is that it is more important than ever that they talk about their science with the passion and the ability to go into detail that only they can do. But, recognise that people are not the same as you minus the sciencey bit. They have constructed a meaning for the world already on the information they have, based on their experiences, background etc. Your information will need to become integrated with that somehow if you want to change their behaviour.

So where do we go if we kill the deficit model? I believe that constructivism goes a long way to developing a new model without throwing the baby out with the bathwater and losing the information part of the process. And here’s where I become frustrated with science communication as a discipline; education (as a discipline) has been grappling with this for some time. Education researchers have been writing and publishing about it for years. Why are we only starting to think about it in science communication now? Aren’t we all learners? Working at an interface is tricky, and lonely sometimes. Science communicators in practice (the people that talk science) are often in and of science. The people that research how people relate to scientific ideas are usually not, often in education or the social sciences. The distances between the two groups can feel enourmous at times. I physically work at two different campuses and have two different contracts for each role so I feel the gap between science communication practice and research quite keenly. As a science communicator I was not encouraged to keep up the date with the research literature, despite being in an environment that was completely devoted to knowledge and evidence. The theory and complexity of what I did (and do) was often invisible to my scientist collegues. Then again, I would not expect scientists to become experts in my discipline, just as I don’t expect to become an expert in theirs. But we have to work together.

I’m am so excited about having more dialogue between researchers and practitioners in this space in the future because we won’t ever make any headway if we allows the silos to persist. And it also means that I can stop talking to myself.

Silos at Wallaroo
Silos at Wallaroo

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