This blog post is in response to all of the interest in the Twitter post I made about my student’s opinions regarding science communication on Twitter.
About my course
My course is called science-policy and it is focused on how to effectively engage as a scientist in the decision-making process. We spend the first third of the class discussing different philosophies behind engagement and the roles that scientists can play in the process. The middle third is a mix of case studies (e.g. Northwest Forest Plan, experimental flooding in the Grand Canyon, etc) and guest visits from congressional staffers. The final third is focused on effective communication. This involves writing research briefs, giving short presentations, and the elevator speech. I like to experiment with a different assignment each year and see how it works. I make them worth a very small fraction of the course grade in case they are a flop. I ask the students at the end what they thought of the assignment and it either evolves or is eliminated. This year I had them follow ten scientists on Twitter for the semester and report three things they thought worked well for communicating science and three things they thought did not work well.
I tweeted the common ones out because I thought they were interesting and the one-off ones that made me chuckle while grading. These are absolutely the opinions of my students. They did not get any more guidance than I stated above.
Stats on the scientists they followed
Total = 82 (20 female, 62 male, 17 early career)
The fields of expertise were diverse and ranged from psychology to neuroscience to space to climate to ecology and many more.
58 are at academic institutions and the balance is a mix of government, NGO, and independent
Location: US 65; UK 9, Canada 4, 1 each in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Australia
Stats on number of followers: Max 13M; Q3 77,400; Median 9,557; Q1 945; Min 195
Three of the early career (< Assistant Professor) had more followers than the median
Probably the thing that caused the most consternation within the twitterverse was that scientists are people too and many tweet personal stuff as well. Drum roll please…
Exactly 4 of the 58 had anything “personal” in their description and only 2 stated that this was their personal account.
Unpacking “politics not science”
Given the character limitation, I boiled down something nuanced to three words. Unfortunately, this yielded statements about my students being biased, privileged, and entitled. I found the privileged and entitled comment so preposterous that I shared it with my colleagues and we all got a laugh. No one has ever described students at our university as privileged and entitled.
What that three word summary represented was the fact that students who mentioned politics very much appreciated when scientists brought their expertise to the discussion about a politically hot-button topic such as climate change. They thought folks like Katharine Hayhoe did a fantastic job of communicating the science, addressing the policy context, and answering questions. What they found ineffective was when scientists mixed their political views on stuff unrelated to their research in with their tweets about science.
Note: Katharine Hayhoe was listed as an example of a top-notch science communicator by several students. This also happens to be my opinion.
The tweet summary represents the opinions of my students. I tweeted the common ones out because I found them interesting. The wonderful thing about the First Amendment is that if you are a US-based scientist you’re entitled to tweet out whatever you want. Non-science audiences are as diverse as the people who do science professionally. If you take anything away from this very limited survey of my students it should be this: If you want to effectively communicate your science, figure out what audience you are trying to reach and tailor your approach to that audience. You may turn some others off, but if you’re reaching your intended audience, who cares. I work on forests, fire, and climate change. My intended audience is policy-makers and natural resource managers. Some other folks, that don’t fall into those groups, appreciate the information I share. I dabble on Twitter, but that is not my primary tool for communicating science with my intended audience. I’m always happy to answer anyone’s questions, as long as they are respectful.
Take what you want from this and leave the rest. If you use a similar exercise and find something that improves on what I did, please share it. If you’re put off by my student’s opinions, I recommend you do some self-reflection to figure out why you are all twisted-up over the opinions of a group of young people you’ve never met who haven’t singled you out in some way. My personal opinion is that my expertise on feedbacks between forests, fire, and climate doesn’t make me an expert on any other topic. Thus, my opinion on another topic isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s.
Any comments require my approval and I am pretty bad about paying attention to the notifications.
The explosive nature of the vegetation currently burning in the California wildfires is a direct result of high temperature and a prolonged period with no rain. Vegetation, or fuel as it is often referred to in fire science, contains water. Water has a high specific heat, which is the amount of energy required to raise an amount water by one degree Celsius. In the case of water it is 4.186 joules of energy per gram of water. To get vegetation to burn you need enough heat to boil off the water in the vegetation first. It takes 540 kcal to boil a kilogram of water. This is precisely why if you try and start a campfire with wet wood, you are going to be cold.
In the shrub or chaparral ecosystems that are currently burning in southern California, fuel moisture after the winter rainy season is over 100%. That means that for every kilogram of shrub there is a kilogram or more of water. This year, Chamise, a common shrub in southern California, peaked at 120% fuel moisture and is currently at 60% fuel moisture. This means half as much energy is required to get the shrubs to burn now as was required back in early June.
When you are trying to light a campfire, the best thing to do is to get your head down near the base and blow. This increases the amount of air and oxygen moving past the flame. A little flicker, some well place blowing, and viola, you’ve got a nice campfire. Now add Santa Ana winds to already dry fuel and an ignition source and the result is explosive fire conditions. As vegetation burns and generates heat, it pre-heats the vegetation in front of it, causing the water to boil off before the flame reaches the vegetation. This preconditions the vegetation to burn, similar to seasoning your fire wood.
How climate change makes it worse
Climate change is causing higher temperatures, both during the day and at night. When the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water. This causes ecosystems to dry out as water in the ecosystem evaporates and plants release more water as they photosynthesize. As a result, higher temperatures alone are enough to dry out vegetation. Next we add the longer dry season in California. The length of time between when the winter rains in one year stop and the rains the next year start has been increasing with ongoing climate change. These two factors, higher temperatures and a longer dry season, increase the length of time each year that these ecosystems are available to burn. The longer it has been since the last rain event, the drier the vegetation. This prolong dry period and drier vegetation during the Santa Ana wind period causes explosive fire growth during high wind events.
Imagine a career where a high success rate means you fail more than 50% of the time and you can never prove you are correct. That is being a scientist.
I live in a world where the majority of my friends are also scientists and I often forget that most people have relatively limited formal exposure to science. Sure, you take biology and chemistry in high school and if you’re not a science major in college, you take a few science classes. What gets lost in this level of education is how messy the scientific process is and how often you fail to accomplish your objective. What also gets lost is how the excitement of unexpected results is really what drives most of us. We teach science as a linear process in introductory science classes – researcher develops hypothesis, designs experiment to test hypothesis, experiment supports hypothesis, new knowledge acquired and added to text book. But, that isn’t how it really works.
A more accurate representation of this bland description is that – researcher develops hypothesis, designs experiment to test hypothesis, experiment fails for any number of reasons, researcher develops new experiment to test hypothesis, experiment inconclusive, new knowledge acquired, researcher reevaluates hypothesis and starts over. Of course, that doesn’t do the process justice. In my experience as a forest ecologist it usually goes something like this:
If you’re not a scientist (which I hope) and reading this (the whole reason I write this blog), you’re probably thinking – This poor science geek can only make friends with other scientists. and It must be pretty demoralizing to fail most of the time. I certainly can’t speak for everyone in science, but I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to thinking about forests and most of my friends are pretty obsessive about thinking about their study systems too. It’s not a curse; nature is a fascinatingly complex puzzle. I absolutely love forests and I strive to do meaningful work that helps us understand and better manage our forests. As for the failure part, sure sometimes it’s disheartening. But the unexpected is what motivates me. When I get unexpected results and it challenges me to think about the forest in a new way, that is what wakes me up in the middle of the night. That is what allows me to let the grant proposal and paper rejections roll off my back. When I teach introductory ecology, I try and communicate to students that this process is not linear like their textbook would have them believe. The information that makes it into a book has lots of failure and reevaluation behind it. The individuals that discovered those things in their textbook were driven by curiosity and the desire to more completely understand whatever system they were working in. While this career certainly doesn’t appeal to most, I just hope that people who aren’t scientists can appreciate the process the way I appreciate the process an artist or business person or engineer goes through.