#BoraZUofA Linkfest: A collection of the sites and posts referenced in Bora’s talks

Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic‘s visit to the University of Alberta was a wonderful whirlwind of talks on science education, science communication, open science, peer review and the scientific publishing industry. I’ve summarized his talks in an overview of the week. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look, Bora has also shared a list of links to the sites, posts and people he mentioned or used in his talks (or intended to use in some cases). It’s a terrific guide to exploring these issues online. (more…)

#BoraZUofA: A thought-provoking week with Bora Zivkovic

Enjoying some Tim Horton's treats while visiting Joel Dacks's lab

Just a few weeks ago I waved goodbye to Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zikovic and thanked him for a wonderful week of talks at the University of Alberta. Somehow in just a week we’d managed to chat about science teaching, science blogs, the history of academic publishing, open-access, post-publication peer review, science on Twitter and so much more. It was exciting and exhausting, and my ideas notebook is completely full.

As part of the University’s Distinguished Visitor program, a small group of faculty from cell biology (Joel Dacks), anthropology (Bora’s brother, Marko Zivkovic) and science education (me) brought Bora to town to speak with students and faculty. No matter what the topic, the theme seemed to be: keep an open mind. Be willing to consider new ways of doing things but also remember that they might not be as they first appear. (more…)

My interview with Deborah Blum author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

“I had been thinking about the best way to communicate chemistry. I’m a failed chemistry major from way back when and I wanted to find a way to kind of subversively write about chemistry, to tell stories that I would weave chemistry into without being a tutorial. Just like ‘this is a really cool story and along the way you’re going to learn some chemistry’ and I thought well, there’s no better way to do that than to tell a murder story. ”

And so began my conversation last week with science writer and journalism professor Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was honoured to take on guest hosting duties for Skeptically Speaking (a science radio show normally hosted by the wonderful Desiree Schell) and to have the chance to talk to Deborah about chemistry, poisons, and writing compelling stories about science. Spoiler: the first thing Deborah says is “It makes me sound so creepy” Now that’s good radio!

You can listen to or download the interview at Skeptically Speaking.

Beyond 42: How science can use stories to explain life, the universe and everything

I’m thrilled to be welcoming Scientific American’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic to the University of Alberta, March 5-9, 2012. As part of his visit, please join us Friday, March 9 for a special night of story telling and music where we’ll find the people, places and things that make science what it is.

Featuring host Bora Zivkovic, musical story telling with Robin Woywitka and the Super 92, and local story tellers from Edmonton’s science community.


Role modeling through personal stories isn’t as easy as it sounds

I got very brave a few weeks ago and participated in a storytelling event as part of Science Online 2012, an annual science communication conference held in North Carolina. Instead of the usual guest speakers and awards ceremonies that haunt most conference banquets, this was a partnership with The Monti that brought members of our own online science community together to share intimate and often funny parts of their lives. It was a nod to the spirit of the conference, which encourages open sessions and audience contributions over slide presentations and lectures. That’s why it’s my favourite conference of the year, and it works because it’s a conference filled with fascinating people: science writers, researchers, bloggers, artists, programmers, physicians, teachers, and librarians all interested in science in the online world.


School kids outshine adult commenters in thinking critically about evidence. And so what?

“Science educators, here’s what you’re up against. A debate in the comments on this story over whether the movie “Mission to Mars” proves that ancient Martian life was used to seed life on Earth.”

There’s no way I could pass over a Facebook status like this one. My friend K.O. recently made the comment in reference to a Popular Science article called “A Significant Portion of Mars Could Be Friendly to Life, New Models Suggest.”  The article itself is a short summary of a paper published in the journal Astrobiology, which uses models to predict how deep a microbial biosphere might extend into Mars’s surface. And while I might quibble when the author uses the phrase “slam-dunk” to describe the evidence for water on Mars, the interesting story isn’t in the article. The real story, for me and for K.O., is in the comments.


What does it mean to be a science writer? Finding common ground at NASW

Glen Canyon Dam

“Excuse me, what are the numbers of the back of your shirt?” inquired the middle-aged bearded man beside me. We were on a tour of the Glen Canyon together as part of the National Association of Science Writers conference. A young women turned her head, “Ya, I was wondering that too. What are those?” The answer is they’re the GPS co-ordinates for the tree depicted on the shirt but that’s not the interesting part of the story. After answering them, I turned to a friend and noted how funny it was that no one had ever asked me that before. She laughed and said, “Yes, but you’re on a trip with journalists now. That’s what we do.”


Learning about science writing from kids

What do kids think about the science that they read? What lessons can science writers learn from them? Tonight, I got 5 minutes to try to answer those questions at the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting. This is my first year attending the conference so I thought it would be fun to jump right in and give an Ignite talk. These are 5 minute presentations that must use exactly 20 slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. It’s a fast-paced and fun format. In my 5 minutes I shared six lessons that I’ve learned from what kids say about the science reading they do. Ben Young Landis (@younglandis) snapped this photo of my presentation.
Welcome @mcshanahan to #sciwri11 and NASW! Already at it w an... on Twitpic


Science Education and Changing People’s Minds Part 2: Writing to convince

This summer project was inspired by a panel that I sat on at LogiCon this spring. The moderator, Desiree Schell asked us whether we would describe ourselves as evangelists for science and for scientific thinking. I answered that in my everyday dealings with friends and family I try to be a stealth evangelist, sharing my own enthusiasm as a gentle approach to encourage others to do the same. After the panel though, I felt that I’d cheated a little bit with my answer and not thought about my experience as a science education researcher. That’s what these posts are meant to do, take a look at the research literature in science education and ask what it might have to offer to communicating about science and scientific ideas more generally.

I find online science communication fascinating. I am enthusiastic about its possibilities and intrigued by its challenges. With an interest in online communication, comes an interest in text. While videos, animations and images are powerful too, the written word is often the simplest and the default mode of online communication–-think blog posts, tweets, status updates, and comment sections, mostly all written or at least including written elements. In the world of online science communication, these are all texts but what makes a text good for communicating about science and, in particular, what makes a text good for helping readers understand and accept scientific ideas about the world?

Science education has been kind of text (especially textbook) obsessed for a long time. In the late 19th century textbooks acted as de facto curricula for schools that aimed for some cohesion as they spread out across a North American landscape that was still being settled. And we’ve never quite been able to let that go. Questions about what makes texts good and what makes them convincing, have been a recurring theme.

Last week, Christie Wilcox began a series on her blog Science Sushi, part of the Scientific American blog network. She started with this introduction:

“People believe a lot of things that we have little to no evidence for, like that vikings wore horned helmets or that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. One of the things I like to do on my blogs is bust commonly held myths that I think matter. For example, I get really annoyed when I hear someone say sharks don’t get cancer (I’ll save that rant for another day). From now onward, posts that attack conventionally believed untruths will fall under a series I’m going to call ‘Mythbusting 101.’”

I read it and thought, “A-Ha, Inspiration!” (not like the A-Ha! tuna I was once offered at a restaurant, that’s another story)[i]. What guidance can the science education literature offer for doing this kind of blogging well? Are there ways to more effectively change readers’ minds about common misconceptions, myths and everyday notions that are less than scientific?

As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, changing peoples’ conceptions is hard, very hard. The way we understand the world is shaped by all of our interactions with it and with all of the people in our lives. We don’t just have a set of ideas that sit on a shelf like books and can easily be replaced one for another. Ideas about the world are more like tangled webs of connected information, experiences, and beliefs. A complex ecosystem is a better analogy than a bookshelf. This means that writing to bust myths, convince people about scientific evidence or change their minds takes more than just communicating clearly. If that were all it took, science teaching would be easy and there would be few public controversies about accepted scientific ideas.

Explainers, like Chris Rowan’s post about the Japanese earthquake, are excellent when the issue is missing information. For example, I think I have reasonably scientific views about earthquakes (I did fairly well in undergrad geology and have taught some very rudimentary earth science in schools) but my views are patchy in places. It’s not so much that I have serious misconceptions but instead holes in my understanding. Good explainers fill in these gaps with clear descriptions and new information. They aren’t usually narratives and they aren’t usually arguments. They are typically purely expository, and they are excellent for filling in patchy places in a reader’s understanding.  This process is sometimes described as assimilation – the new ideas are like a new species introduced into the ecosystem. If there’s a niche for them and they fit into the existing structure, they are assimilated with little conflict and change. (This analogy kind of breaks if you try to take it as far as invasive species). When the problem is misunderstanding though, explainers aren’t as helpful.

There have been two major reviews of research done on the ways that written texts can support conceptual change, the kind of conceptual change that causes the whole conceptual ecosystem to be altered. In 1993, Barbara Guzzetti and her colleagues published a statistical meta-analysis of studies up to that point, comparing the different approaches that had been used and the effect that they had on students from elementary school up to undergraduate classes.[ii] Christine Tippett updated their review last year with an overview and a thematic analysis.[iii] Both reviews show consistent evidence that explainers are not the best type of writing for conceptual change. The most effective texts were those that directly addressed and refuted common misconceptions.

Refutation texts always include at least two parts: a) a statement illustrating a common or likely misconception and b) direct statements that contradict the misconception and emphasize more scientific views. Usually there is some sort of refutation cue as well, such as labelling something as a myth or saying directly “but this is not true.” Tippett gives this example written for young children (the misconception is in red, the cue in blue and underlined and the refutation in green):

Some people believe that a camel stores water in its hump. They think that the hump gets smaller as the camel uses up water. But this is not true. The hump stores fat and grows smaller only if the camel has not eaten for a long time. A camel can also live for days without water because water is produced as the fat in its hump is used up.” (p. 952)

In her Mythbusting 101 post, Wilcox does something very similar. She lays out four myths and common beliefs and then carefully explains why each is not true or at least isn’t as simple as it first sounds. Her post has the structure of a refutation text, pointing out to the reader something that many believe to be true and then explicitly saying that it isn’t (colours are the same as the example from Tippett).

“Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides

When the Soil Association, a major organic accreditation body in the UK, asked consumers why they buy organic food, 95% of them said their top reason was to avoid pesticides. They, like many people, believe that organic farming involves little to no pesticide use. I hate to burst the bubble, but that’s simply not true. Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops.”

Wilcox’s text also illustrates another element of effective conceptual change writing – straight and direct expository refutation. Sometimes education authors will try to explain science concepts through stories. The misconception is brought up as part of the narrative on the assumption that narratives are more comfortable, more interesting, and easier to understand. In Guzzetti’s analysis, though, only young children benefited from having narrative included as part of the refutation. High school and undergrad students reponded better to the straight expository texts. Tippett also points out that older students seem to prefer to read in this style.

Ok, so that’s two tips so far – direct refutation is important and it’s most effective when it’s straight expository refutation (except when it’s for young children). What about the context in which texts are read and the thinking processes of the reader?

Both Tippett and Guzzetti were able to look at several comparisons in how refutation texts were used: texts on their own, texts used with classroom discussions, texts read before and after classroom demonstrations, and texts used with writing activities. Given how powerful direct experiences can be, I was surprised that both of the reviews showed that the most effective strategies were always combinations that included text and that text on its own was more powerful that any of the other methods on their own (e.g., discussions and demos). This says a lot about the power of what we read.

Of course there are several possible explanations for this, not the least of which is that you can return to a text and read it several times to remind yourself of its content, something you can’t do with a discussion. The strength of text alone shouldn’t be taken as absolute as neither Tippett nor Guzzetti were able to make comparisons to videos and interactive animations which would presumably have some of those same benefits.

Given that texts are important, what made particular texts more effective than others? Across all of those combinations, the texts worked better when students had a chance to think about their own conceptions first (sometimes called activating or priming their prior conceptions) and then had their own ideas directly challenged. This makes sense from a conceptual change perspective, where the difficult task of rearranging and changing conceptions is thought to happen as a result of cognitive conflict or disequilibrium – creating an internal discrepancy.  The discussion around cognitive dissonance in relation climate change and evolution, for example, also views this conflict as potentially negative, where placing ideas side by side leads people to want to resolve the conflict, often by relying on their prior views and warping the new information to suit. At the same time real conceptual change is unlikely to happen unless this same conflict occurs.

Just asking people to think about or priming their prior knowledge without explicitly challenging it was not enough. The most effective texts (and text-activity combinations) asked students to think about and apply their own conceptions and then challenged them directly. In writing and blogging then, activating or priming misconceptions would mean more than just stating common misconceptions. Sometimes people don’t think they hold a particular misconception until you ask them to make a prediction, explain a particular situation or make a hypothetical decision. And it’s easier to gloss over or ignore mythbusting when you don’t think you hold the myth or that it doesn’t apply to you. Good activation asks the reader to recognize how they view the world, so then the writer can go on to refute it. The chance for a meaningful discrepancy between ideas (the myth and the scientific conception) is higher when the conflicting ideas are recognized as your own. In Part 1 I wrote about one of my favourite teaching techniques (the POE: Predict, Observe, Explain).[iv] It serves the same basic function. When presented with a situation, asking students to predict what will happen activates their prior knowledge and brings it forward to be challenged. It’s even better when you have them explain the reasoning behind their predictions. With a POE demo, the refutation comes when it doesn’t happen like they expected it would. In text, in comes from the refutation cue (“I hate to burst the bubble, but that’s simply not true”) and the scientific conception  presented by the author. The effect of activating the reader to think about their own prior conceptions can add to the chance that these refutations will work.

So let’s go back to Wilcox’s post for a moment. After the brief description of her mythbusting series that I copied above, there are two opening paragraphs that discuss organic foods generally and introduce the idea that there are a lot of myths out there about them. The one thing that might be missing, though, is a challenge to the reader to actually think about their own views, in other words a chance to activate their prior conceptions. I’ll admit it here: I was once (in what now seems like a past life) a vegan and committed to only eating natural foods. It’s taken a long time (and a lot of bacon) for me to sort through my conceptions of food and agriculture and to make sense of which ideas are supported by evidence and which are everyday notions that I still cling to. Wilcox’s mythbusting is directed exactly at someone like me and might be even more effective if those readers had an opportunity to bring their own ideas to the front of their minds to be recognized. From my own perspective, on the surface I don’t think that I subscribe to these myths anymore but I know deep down that there are pieces of them still there in the ways that I think. Good conceptual change activation would start by digging into these deeper patterns and challenging me to recognize where I too subscribe to some elements of these myths. One way might be to present a hypothetical decision making problem, for example asking the reader to examine fictitious statements from farmers at a farmers market on the topic of organic foods and decide which they would choose to buy from. This would ask the reader to commit, at least to a hypothetical degree, to their conceptions making them more likely to be challenged. When students have these opportunities in classrooms, they are more likely to change their minds towards more scientific conceptions.

So what hints are there in the conceptual change literature about writing to change people’s mind?

  1. When challenging difficult myths and misconceptions, direct refutation seems to work best.
  2. Refutations that are written in expository rather than narrative language seem to be both preferred and most effective.
  3. Refutations are especially useful when they not only state common misconceptions but activate the reader to think about and commit to their own views before having them challenged.

Of course people and their ideas are very complex. None of these strategies will guarantee that any reader will change their mind. There are many other factors involved, including motivation, interests,  and social relationships that are built on shared beliefs and ideological commitments. One of the studies in Tippett’s review that surprised me the most, though, asked if the students who were more committed to their conceptions experienced less conceptual change. To my surprise, the researchers didn’t find any relationship. Students who were strongly and weakly committed to their ideas we just as likely to change their minds. Much more important was students’ understanding of science processes and scientific evidence. Those with sophisticated views of science were, not surprisingly, more convinced by scientific evidence[v] – adding weight to ongoing efforts to emphasize the processes of science both in schools and public science outreach. This relationship is important to remember as a public communicator. No matter how well written and clear your explanation, no matter how direct your refutation, readers struggling to understanding scientific evidence will more likely struggle to be convinced by it. Communicating about scientific ideas is difficult, doing it with the intent of changing people’s minds even harder, but I hope that some of the lessons learned in science education might offer a few strategies for making that road a little bit easier to travel.

This is also cross-posted at the Scientific American Guest Blog.

[i] Thanks to Emily Willingham for reminding me of that inspiration later on Twitter.
[ii] Guzzetti, B.J., Snyder, T.E., Glass, G.V., & Gamas, W.S. (1993). Promoting conceptual change in science: A comparative meta-analysis of instructional interventions from reading education and science education. Reading Research Quarterly, 28, 117–155.

[iii] Tippett, C.D. (2010). Refutation text in science education: A review of two decades of research. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8, 951-970.

[iv] Interested in POE? My friend and colleague Mike Bowen’s great book Predict, Observe, Explain: Activities Enhancing Scientific Understanding just won a Book Design & Effectiveness Award from Washington Book Publishers.

[v] See also: Mason, L., & Gava, M. (2007). Effects of epistemological beliefs and learning text structure on conceptual change. In S. Vosniadou, A. Baltas, & X. Vamvakoussi (Eds.), Reframing the conceptual change approach in learning and instruction (pp. 165–197). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Blogs as boundary layers: Brian Romans, Simon Winchester, Facebook and earthquakes together at last

At Science Online 2011, I talked about the idea that blogs are like boundary layers where different people and different types of information can mix and have influence on each other. Brian Romans recently wrote this piece on his blog at Wired that jumped out at me as an example of an information boundary layer. In his post, he reviews the controversy that has grown up around a column Simon Winchester wrote for Newsweek called “The scariest earthquake is yet to come.”

Romans is a research geologist and we clearly see his opinion and views in the post – but importantly that’s not all. There are links to two mainstream news articles (Winchester’s Newsweek column and his follow up from the Daily Beast), two other blogs (one by a postdoc geologist and the other by a recent master’s graduate) and a facebook page that recounts an email exchange between Winchester and another scientist.

Linking has always been an important part of blogging culture – link to everything and let the readers make up their own minds. Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything highlights the importance of linking as a defining characteristic in the development of blogging.

Linking is also what makes Romans’s piece different from reading an op-ed or other opinion piece. Reading his posts puts the reader (maybe someone like me with no expertise in the area) in contact with conflicting views expressed through formal journalistic writing, opinions written by scientists, and personal communications between a scientist and a journalist. So it’s not just links, but links to different types of sources. And that makes it a completely different reading experience.

Rosenberg describes pioneering blogger Justin Hall using links to “build elaborate cross-references into his own storytelling…creating webs of meaning.” Examining the effect of blogs on online journalism, Donald Matheson wrote:

“The weblog moves away from the rather abstract authority assumed by such news texts to a more situated authority, in which we hear a journalistic voice choosing material as well as multiple and often discordant journalistic voices accessed through the links. In this context, meaning must be more actively constructed by the user.”[i]

This is what I had in mind when I started thinking about blogs as information boundary layers – places where different sources, different writing styles and different types of claims are mixed together for the reader to make sense of. And, as a reader, I feel like I have a much better understanding of the controversy because of that mixing.

In the past year, science blogs have played a really significant role in scientific controversies and I’m intrigued to see how their growing influence is supported by the ability to provide a space for engaging with different types of information.

[i] Matheson, D. (2004). Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: Some trends in online journalism. New Media & Society, 6, 443-468. (p. 460)