MIT Comm Lab attended the Amplify the Signal conference at UIUC in May 2019. Communication Fellows Leigh Ann Kesler (NSE), Ravikishore Kommajosyula (MechE), and Amanda Chen (BE), brought back exciting ideas and important questions. Read more below.
Amplify the Signal, hosted at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was a two-day workshop for science writers, scientists, public information officers, and students who want to better understand, evaluate, and share new research findings with non-scientist audiences. The title of the conference, Amplify the Signal, refers to the importance of amplifying important and accurate scientific findings to support an informed and educated society. However, scientists and science writers want to be careful about over-amplifying incorrect or nuanced findings or under-amplifying critical findings. The talks covered a variety of topics including misinformation and disinformation, how information is amplified, and tips for scientists and journalists to communicate science more accurately to the general public – all in an effort to accurately amplify the signal.
The fellows were eager to attend a conference that brought together scientists, science journalists, and public information officers to discuss science communication. Ravi was excited to think about a range of topics [related to communicating science with a non-scientist audience] that he doesn’t often encounter working in an engineering department. Leigh Ann was looking forward to visiting her alma mater, both from a sense of nostalgia and because she knew that there was a lot of good science communication from the agriculture college. The conference gave the fellows an opportunity to think about how to engage with other researchers and professionals on how we should think about science communication.
The fellows strongly believe that science communication is critical for the dissemination of work to scientists and the general public. As scientists, we struggle to convince the general public about pressing issues such as global warming despite having irrefutable evidence. On the other hand, the public are misled on a daily basis by reporters who rely on questionable results from poorly executed studies that get over-amplified. Ravi thinks that if scientists start caring about science communication, they can take charge of how their science is communicated and help stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Amanda adds that strong science communication is important both within science (i.e. communicating research findings within or outside of your field of discipline) and also outside of science (e.g. outreach; political engagement).
The fellows brought back a lot of interesting discussion points from the conference. Videos of the talks can be found here.
Leigh Ann: I really enjoyed the talk by Ed Yong (science journalist for the Atlantic). Hearing someone talk about how to read and interpret scientific literature as a non-scientist (though he has a BA/MA from Cambridge and an MPhil from UCL) really made me think about how I write and read publications. He also spoke about the role of stories in science, which has led me to think a lot more about interpretation and bias.
Amanda: Many of the speakers talked about their passions within the field of science communication. I love that the audience was actively engaged during the Q&A with the idea of brainstorming actionable items to take away from the talks. For example, public information officers asked a speaker on research ethics about how to ask authors questions about their studies (when preparing a press release) in order to gauge the merit of the work. This went along with the conference theme “amplify the signal” – which in part is driven by preventing the over-amplification of “bad” signal.
Ravi: The opening talk by Prof. Daniel Simons on “What could this study tell us?” was the highlight of the conference. The talk focused on critically evaluating the merit of a scientific study by evaluating the design of the study to inform its ability to make the claims it does. The two talks on statistics by Profs. Chris Fraley and Brent Roberts were extremely well-organized and are prime examples of how to communicate science to a broad audience. The talk by C.K. Gunsalus on perverse incentives in science threw light on a topic that is not often discussed in the field of science communication, and provided persuasive evidence of how systemic issues in academic circles are often brushed under the carpet.
The conference brought up several questions that we hope to explore more deeply in Comm Lab and within our departments. If you have thoughts or want to share, please reach out to one of the fellows!
How does the background of a scientist influence the work that they do?
Ed Yong’s talk made Leigh Ann think about how important stories are to science, about how the background and life of the scientist influences the work they do. This has led her to think more about how we are not really the impartial observers of data that we would like to be, and how that influences the way we work.
How do incentive structures drive certain behaviors in science?
Amanda has continued to think about the topic of incentive structures driving certain behaviors in science (and beyond!). As C.K. Gunsalus discussed in her talk, the perverse incentive structure in science is permissive to bad, unethical behavior and research misconduct. Interestingly, the majority of scientists are familiar with proper research conduct due to required formal training in the topic. However, observing “bad” behaviors among successful labs in academia can suggest to new trainees that there is a certain “way” to do science that is different from the written rules.
Similarly, it is incorrect for press officers, public information officers, and scientists alike to write clickbait titles that purposely mislead (or disinform) an audience. In the current structure, articles with the most clicks will be the most widely read, which often have attached financial incentives. To Amanda’s knowledge, there currently are not any consequences to discourage and prevent the use of clickbait for dishonest reporting.
Amanda would like to continue to think about this phenomenon and how we can leverage incentive engineering to improve the quality of research and science communication systemically.
How do our expectations of scientists and journalists reflect what they are trained to do?
Ravi notes that a lot of scientific tasks, including writing and reviewing, are tasks that students learn on the job within the confines of eclectic research groups. This results in extremely inhomogeneous standards of what is perceived as right in academic circles. Similarly, there is an ever-increasing spotlight on science journalists to verify the credibility of the underlying research, after it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal but before it is highlighted in a story. However, the journalists often do not possess the necessary skills or training to critically evaluate scientific research.
The fellows had a great time at the conference and hope to continue these discussions with the MIT community. If you have thoughts or comments, share them with us by reaching out your Comm Lab or contacting a fellow directly! Need help communicating your science? Find your Comm Lab and make an appointment with a fellow today!